By Chris Engle, contributor
Long before anyone paid me to write, I made my living making pizza in convenience-store pizza kitchens. My personal record for a day’s work stands at 34 pizzas, each one tossed, sauced, cheesed, topped, baked, boxed and sliced by hand.
Except for that extraordinarily busy day, I spent the lull between pizza orders studying and doing homework so I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life covered in flour and cheese, though I still enjoy making the occasional scratch pizza at home.
On really slow days my boss had me bake frozen pies to sell at the counter, my favorite of which was “fruits of the forest,” stuffed with not-so-foresty fruits like apples, rhubarb and strawberries but also loaded with raspberries and blackberries.
And this is what I’ve been getting at in my usual, unnecessary, roundabout way: Blackberry season is upon us!
I’ve been doing this blog for four seasons now and foraging is one of my favorite topics. It’s also one of my favorite hobbies since I’m less of a hunter than I used to be and the thrill of the hunt has been somewhat replaced by sleuthing out the next big berry patch.
The best part of picking wild fruit is that it’s a sustainable and super nutritious food and, with the exception of the cost of fuel, it’s free. And if you’re in Otsego County, you won’t have to drive very far to find berries.
Among Michigan’s 83 counties, Otsego County is ranked in the top five in the production of natural gas and oil. This means there are thousands of oil and gas wells across the county and surrounding areas, each with a 1- or 2-acre clearing and a two-track road leading to it. A vast number of these are on public land.
If it’s berries you’re after, this is where you should start. Blackberry bushes, recognized by their tall, curved and thorny stems, line these two tracks and clearings. They like direct sun and just a little shade, so I’ve found my best patches along roads that run east and west with the movement of the sun across the sky.
There’s another thing Otsego County has, especially in its southern areas: black bears. Guess what? They like berries too.
Though I’ve never come across a bear in one of my patches, I always pretend like there is one. This involves talking or singing to myself loudly and moving my arms a lot to make my presence known. Sure I look like a moron and you will too, but you’ll be a moron with a bucket of blackberries and all your limbs in place. What good are nutritious berries if you’re dead anyway?
As nutrition goes, wild berries are right up there with the best.
On Sunday mornings, usually on the way home from a fishing trip, I’ll listen to “Splendid Table,” a show about cooking and food on NPR. The host gets a little too excited about organic flax seeds or fair-trade fennel but she often has interesting guests talking about the science behind foods.
On one episode was Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side. Robinson was talking about the benefits of antioxidants, a compound produced by wild plants to protect themselves from predators and help them heal from damage caused by browsing animals.
Wild berries, Robinson said, are especially high in these compounds.
“When we eat them,” she said, “their protection becomes our protection.”
Those compounds protect us against cancer, ulcers, diabetes and obesity, according to Robinson’s research.
These days there’s a growing concern about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other unsavory things in our food. None of the above exists in wild berries and the only reason to rinse them, if you’d consider it a reason at all, is to remove any bugs or soil – but that’s just extra nutrients wasted!
When it comes to eating what you’ve gathered, jams and pies are a no-brainer. My suggestion is to freeze them, unrinsed (to prevent clumping) and toss handfuls into pancake batter or oatmeal. Cooking thaws them just enough to release their juices and a few quarts in the freezer should last you all the way to Christmas.
Alright, enough reading. The berries are ripe for the picking.
Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.