Free food is a concept with almost universal appeal. Certainly over my career as a journalist, free food was one of the major perks driving news coverage. Given the choice, you’d much rather cover an event featuring free food than one without it. Even lousy free food was better than no food. As a veteran reporter told me at an event one day, the food might not be very good, but at least there’s plenty of it.
This food fixation is brought on by the fact that this is one of my favorite times of the year in Northwest Florida, when nature sets the free food table in a particularly pleasing way: berry-picking season.
Dewberries have been ripening for several weeks, and blackberries are on their way. For those of you who go outdoors only to get to the mall, dewberries grow on vines that snake along the ground or climb on fences, while blackberries grow on bushes. In the wild, both are festooned with thorns. Local lore credits them as the reason why the longtime Milton festival was called Scratch Ankle, which is what happens when you walk through a berry patch. They could have called it Scratch Hands and Arms just as easily, but apparently a PR type who knew how to turn a phrase was on the planning committee.
Anyway, dedicated berry pickers have for some time been noting the best locations for berry patches, looking for the tight clusters of white flowers that become invisible when the petals fall and the dark berries turn plump and juicy. My wife and I keep a sharp eye out for these patches, information we guard from other people who might be tempted to poach our patches.
But in my mind the most fun in berry picking comes in stumbling upon an unknown berry patch in full ripeness. What looks from afar like a weed-filled or grassy plot becomes, upon close examination, a veritable cornucopia of plump berries. In what is both a sad commentary and a serendipitous opportunity, picking a berry patch when you are not expecting to find one is usually made possible simply by picking up a plastic bag or a softdrink cup someone has tossed out. I suppose combining litter cleanup with berry picking is a double bonus, but still.
Anyway, recently my wife and I stumbled upon a huge field of dewberries near a large commercial development on, uh, well, let’s just say it was somewhere near Pensacola. We had a small bucket in the car, and I quickly found a drink cup lying on the grass. In half an hour we had all the ripe berries we could reasonably eat, mix with yogurt or ice cream, or bake into a cobbler.
As soon as they are gone, we will head back to our new berry patch.
The main drawback to berry picking season is that it ends way too soon. But, I suppose that there is a certain wisdom in this. People tend to value that which is rare, and all too soon, finding a ripe berry on the vine will be something that you can only do next year.
Of course, if you know where to look, wild blueberries are on the way.