A lesson in blueberries

Summers in the Northeast have taught a Southern gal a thing or two.

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    True Blue: Freshly picked blueberries can make cobblers, pancakes, and muffins blue-ribbon worthy.
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I thought I knew what to do: Take out the box, slit open the plastic bag of batter ingredients, drain the small can. Add water and gently mix in the berries with a big wooden spoon. Voilà! Blueberry muffins, warm and fresh from the oven.

I had a lot to learn about blueberries.

You don't easily take a girl from the South and plant her in the frigid Northeast. But in our almost 40 years of marriage, my Pennsylvania-born husband has taught me a thing or two. He taught me the best way to shovel snow. He taught me to ice skate (or at least to stand on the ice and hold a small child's hand without falling). And he taught me to pick blueberries.

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Every summer since I became part of his family, we have vacationed in a part of Pennsylvania where the wild blueberries flourish. Just outside the cabin where we sleep on bunk beds, cook on an antiquated stove, and wash dishes by hand, blueberries grow on a shoulder-high bush next to the wooden porch steps.

Once our daughters were old enough, our summer picking ritual expanded to include paddling the canvas canoe across the lake to Blueberry Island. The late-afternoon quiet is pierced by an occasional birdsong or the call of one young sailor to his friend in a nearby Sunfish, but mostly children's voices linger over the water.

Visited by six generations of children, Blueberry Island is thick with bushes hugging the shore. My husband would paddle while the children – our own and a stray cousin or two – waded in knee-deep water with buckets securely tied to waists. The plunk-plunking of berries filling up containers meant blueberry cobbler for dinner. Some summers our harvest was so plentiful we put up preserves from the bounty. But to children, preserves aren't nearly as delicious as the cobblers, pancakes, and pies we made.

Experience, and my husband's family, taught me that there's an art to blueberry picking. The best berries are a deep, dark blue. Red ones need more ripening. If a tiny green berry falls into your bucket, it must be discarded.

And there are techniques, etiquette, and blueberry protocol. Besides the bucket-tied-to-the-waist method, we sometimes use the two-person picking technique. A small child holds the bucket while a taller person reaches for the fatter berries closest to sunshine. A heavy branch laden with blueberries can be held for another person to pluck. Gently rubbing the berries into the container yields more berries and fewer leaves.

The fewer stems and leaves, the quicker pies and cobblers are ready to be popped into the oven. The fastest route to blueberry pancakes topped with Amish butter from the weekend farmers' market is a full bucket.

The bluest lips, however, are evidence that a child's fingers have sneaked a few too many berries. In our family, this is overlooked far more quickly than a spilled bucketful.

This summer, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, great-nieces Perry and Isabelle help create our cobblers. We add peeled, sliced peaches from the overflowing bushel of local produce. The girls braid the top crusts into a fancy lattice and never reveal our "secret" ingredient. All 18 family members gathered around the table agree – the cobbler is blue-ribbon worthy.

Lately, I've been picking berries alone. It's the kind of solitary, meditative activity that calms the spirit. But soon my grandchildren will be old enough to master our picking techniques. We'll row out to Blueberry Island with a lunch picnic, tie buckets to our waists, and hope to find enough berries for the evening's supper cobbler.

With great determination, we'll save some for blueberry pancakes sizzling on the griddle in the morning.

Surprise Shortcut Blueberry Peach Cobbler

6 slices white bread

4 fresh peaches, pitted, skinned, and sliced

1 cup blueberries, picked over and washed

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

1 cup white sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish.

Cut crust from bread slices, and cut slices, one at a time, into 4 or 5 strips.

Spread fruit into prepared pan.

On the top of the fruit, make a lattice design with bread strips.

Beat together melted butter, sugar, flour, and egg. Pour mixture over the fruit and bread.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve with vanilla ice cream. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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