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Iconic Canadian FoodsDes produits alimentaires canadiens emblématiques

Blackberries: Canadian Cuisine and Marginal FoodsMûres : cuisine canadienne et aliments marginaux

  • Lenore Newman
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The towns of rural Canada are complicated places, their subtle foodways hidden from the outsider passing by on the highway. My hometown of Roberts Creek now boasts high speed internet and the village cafe makes a decent latte, but it is still a quiet place. In the 1970s when I was growing up it was largely isolated from the outside world, home to an uneasy mix of draft dodgers and loggers, libertarians and commune-dwelling flower children. Although we all gave each other space, the long misty winter seasons when the seasonal work of fishing and tourism slowed were filled with shared provisioning, tangled networks of family and friends sharing things hunted, foraged, or grown. Seafood dominated our foodways, but a key place was reserved for a summer's worth of berries. We fought the local wildlife for strawberries, trapping endless slugs in beer cans. We tended raspberry canes that clung to the thin glacial soil and we drove up mountains to fill ice cream buckets with low-bush blueberries. But by sheer volume, our berry of choice was the blackberry.

Part wild thing and part mutant pest, the blackberry was picked by almost everyone in town, and filled our winters with pies, crisps, jam, and wine. The promise of blackberries begins in the spring with a flush of delicate white flowers that carpets the great mass of the briar and calls out the bees that fill hives with a honey that is almost spicy in its intensity. The vines grow everywhere that nature is disturbed; every roadside, every empty lot or forest edge, rising in giant mounds five and ten feet high. The berries slowly ripen, hard green nubs swelling into sour redness and then maturing into collections of the deepest black drupelets. Hot sunny conditions stunt the berries slightly, but intensify the flavour, and a sudden rain can swell the berries to tastelessness. Harvesting is thus best done in intense bursts of activity, when the bulk of the fruit is at its peak. The thick tangled canes with their large razor thorns that can penetrate denim and canvas exact a toll for each berry picked.

Photo One

A Blackberry Thicket

A Blackberry ThicketPhoto by Lenore Newman

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The common blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, is a controversial and omnipresent force in the Lower mainland of British Columbia. Imported to North America in the 1880s from the mountains of Eastern Europe, these sturdy and imposing plants sprawl over any empty patch of ground, crack concrete, tear through abandoned buildings, and create giant thickets of impenetrable and heavily barbed vines. No one plants them; the seeds hitch rides with birds and wildlife; to the observer they seem to burst from any bare patch of ground. One of my students wrote a thesis on the fight to remove the blackberry from local parks, as they can prevent the germination of rare and endangered plants such as the Garry Oak. Removal requires patience, attention, and ideally a goat or two. Although they are the definition of an aggressive plant, they provide delicious, wonderful fruit in quantities that can make a person weep at the bounty that is the natural world. Farmers can coax up to 20,000 pounds per acre out of blackberry vines; it is difficult to really say what a sprawling wild patch can yield, but it is enough for birds, bears and humans to eat their fill.

At first glance blackberries appear to be a wild food, and as such fit within the pride of place wild foods take in discussions of Canadian cuisine. Patricia Hluchly [1] sees wild foods as one of the three defining features of Canadian cuisine; she highlights a cuisine deeply tied to place and landscape and the bounty of the natural world. This “wild imaginary” associated with much Canadian food has been noted by Atsuko Hashimoto and David Telfer [2] as well, who discuss the link between Canadian identity and the natural environment at length, framing our love of wild foods as part of an urban nation's deeper national association with the rural and the wild. But if wilderness is valued in this country's cuisine, it is hard to wrap the blackberry into that mythology. It is wild in the way a raccoon is wild, more likely to be found in a back alley than on a mountainside. Blackberries are not of wilderness, they are marginal.

Marginality can be found in many rural foodways. Richard Wilk [3] explains marginality as a relational concept; the blackberry with its fecundity and love of abandoned places fits into a category of food that is associated with disadvantaged locals or groups such as migrants or indigenous peoples. We picked blackberries in ditches and vacant lots, hacking trails with machetes. We filled ice cream buckets with fruit as we balanced in gumboots on planks forced into the briar. A vague distain for the blackberry is visible by its absence in period cookbooks; while the difficult to cultivate and delicate strawberry appears in most every Canadian cookbook from the second half of the twentieth century. I browsed my mother's well-worn copies of the Daily Colonist Cookbook, and the 13th Edith Adams Prize Cookbook (books she kept for decades for their detailed game recipes), and found recipes for seven strawberry dishes, five cranberry dishes, three raspberry dishes and a recipe for loganberry wine with the annotation "works with blackberries" penciled in. The blackberry lacks refinement; its dark juice stains everything it touches including children, dogs and table linen, and it is filled with small seeds that need to be separated out for the preparation of jam and wine. This marginality is perhaps exacerbated by haute cuisine's instinctual distaste for the storage method that best suits the blackberry; the chest freezer.

There is little to no discussion of the role of the chest freezer or deep freeze in rural Canadian life, and in fact at food gatherings where I have raised the issue there is an acute embarrassment around frozen foods. Yet in many rural households, as Martin Hand and Elizabeth Shove [4] note, the freezer is an orchestrating node around which multiple aspects of consumption and provision converge. The bulk of the berries harvested during the summer are frozen for winter use; in the case of blackberries we spread them on cookie trays, froze them, and then poured them into Ziploc bags and drew the air out. This method prevented the berries from freezing into a block, allowing berries to be eaten individually, sometimes still frozen, rather in the manner of Inuit quaq. We had two large deep freezes in the basement, one for vegetables and berries, and one for game and fish. Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton [5] note the introduction of the freezer in 1950s and 1960s in Britain was framed initially around preserving home production, before shifting to an item used for bulk provisioning and then as a place to store convenience foods, particularly those suited to the microwave. Much of rural Canada still uses the deep freezer as a key tool for food storage. The distain reserved for the convenience processed food heated in the microwave clouds the very real role of a deep freeze as a grocery store of last resort, for when the weather is too bad, the road is washed out, or the month's money has run too thin. In our town it was not uncommon to keep a few old freezers on hand; filled with ice they were loaded into pickup trucks to act as temporary storage on hunting and fishing trips. My parent's freezers still brim with crab meat and salmon, garden produce and berries, and the routine of taking out an evening's worth of food in early morning to allow for thawing time is still an important part of rural life.

Berries are rising somewhat in status within Canadian culinary circles, particularly when freshly picked in season. In her excellent work on tourist encounters with rural Newfoundland foodways, Holly Everett describes berries as an iconic symbol of a resourceful people and a welcoming wilderness [6]. She describes how they fulfill middle and upper class visions of "the folk", popularized at festivals across the country. In her words, trying a new berry is a "low risk culinary departure" [7], a chance to dip into a local foodway without a problematic encounter with bush meat or unpleasant preparation techniques. I suspect that berries (in all their variety) are on the cusp of joining maple syrup and salmon as national Canadian foods, where recipes are shared nationally with the regional berry slotted in. The wonderful From Pemmican to Poutine [8] includes recipes for blueberry grunt, a partridgeberry pudding, a blueberry jus with duck, a peach and blueberry crisp, a pemmican recipe, and berries marinated in maple syrup and blackberry merlot. In The Flavours of Canada [9], Anita Stewart includes a great recipe for blackberry custard. I've encountered as many berry desserts as chocolate desserts as I crossed the country during my research, often in reworked versions of classic boiled puddings and slow-cooked deep pies.

Adapting recipes to urban tastes, however, only goes so far. To embrace the blackberry requires an embracing of the marginal, an embracing of the hybrid landscapes we live within. This involves rejecting certain assumptions about wilderness and the practices of provisioning from the wild. Berries were so critical across the country to both indigenous populations and settlers alike that they were encouraged by fire and clearing. Blackberries need disturbance to thrive.

Each summer I make time to return home to spend a few days securing the winter's cache. The actual picking of berries is strangely satisfying, as if it is hardwired deep into the brain. The rhythm of the fingers, the scanning of the sea of green for the deep purple of the fruit, the slowly building weight of the bucket and the smell of the berries, warm from the sun. It is a fruity and floral smell all wrapped into one, and is never quite present in the cooked berry. I use large steel bowls for picking, so that the fruit never builds up to a point where the weight crushes the bottom layer of fruit. Slowly the pies of winter accumulate, accompanied by the chirp of crickets and the general drowse of the heat of the day. My father joins me most years, and in winter runs the tractor over the patch a few times to encourage fresh growth and to remove competing species.

Photo Two


BlackberryPhoto by Lenore Newman

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In the long years I spent away from my home I learned to appreciate Canada's other berries. I've snacked on Saskatoons and wandered hillsides covered in a sea of tiny blueberries, perfect for morning pancakes. I've enjoyed grunts and slumps and buckles and cobblers, feasted on u-pick strawberries and reveled in the sheer bounty of Newfoundland's bakeapples and partridgeberries. I've been a berry tourist, and could support the idea that berries are a unifying element within national cuisine. But marginal or trending, each July I must chase my quarry, and I can't rest and pull the thorns from my stained hands until the freezer compartment of my refrigerator is full.

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