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The blackberry scavenger 

During the last few weeks in May, I set out one early evening with my son for a walk around our leafy Chapel Hill neighborhood. I pushed him in his stroller up the steep hill toward the older part of the neighborhood, where the houses are so cute they make my heart ache. Midway through our walk, I noticed a small dirt road that I hadn't paid any attention to before. It had the look and feel of something enchanted, and we set off, bumping the stroller over the dirt and gravel. When we came around a bend, a mass of white blossoms confronted us, and I knew I had hit the jackpot. They were blackberry blossoms.

Here is the secret to blackberry scavenging: There are a few weeks in early summer when the blossoms come out, and you can spot them everywhere. I spent years making disgruntled family members drive slowly down country roads in mid-summer, trying to spot the ripe berries from the car. But if you can remember where the blossoms were, a month later your job will be much easier.

I love searching for and picking blackberries, and I'm not sure why. It's hot work, there are usually mosquitoes, and you inevitably end up with scratches from the thorns, plus poison ivy if you're not careful. But nothing makes me happier than a scavenger hunt. When I was a kid, Easter was my favorite holiday, and it wasn't because of the chocolate--from an early age I could tell that Easter egg chocolate was kind of nasty. Perhaps I have retained an instinct from my hunter-gatherer ancestors, from the women who might have gone out all day to search for food, because my love of searching for treasures has never abated, and it gives me a thrill that I can't quite explain.

I have had a few sparse years in my blackberry picking career recently--for two of them I lived in New York City, then I was pregnant and my siblings didn't like being ordered around sweaty swamps to get the fruit for me as much as I had hoped. Last summer I just couldn't find many good bushes. This year, God is making it up to me. I went back a few weeks after my discovery and was amazed at the number of berries, still small and green, but enough to keep me in pies for the whole season.

This week, the first berries ripened, and I made my first pie. There is nothing in the world as good as a home-baked pie made with hand-picked wild berries. The pie baking for me is as much of a ritual as the picking. I am actually nostalgic for the days when I had no AC, and I would turn up the heat in my oven and bake pies until I was dripping with sweat. There is something sexy about being brazenly domestic, sacrificing your comfort and good sense for a non-essential eating experience.

There are about two weeks left for berry picking, and I urge you to get out there, get sunburned and scratched up, and get a taste of the summer.

Pie Filling
4 cups of fresh berries, rinsed and dried just before using (If you are using frozen berries, do not thaw them before cooking; they will only get mushy.)
1/2 to 1 cup sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries
3 tbs. cornstarch
2 tbs. orange juice
2 tbs. butter

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Line the bottom of your pie pan with one of the crusts, and make a high fluted edge in the crust with your thumb and forefingers. In a bowl, toss the berries gently but thoroughly with sugar, cornstarch and orange juice. Add the fruit to the pastry-lined pan, and dot with butter. You can make lattice strips with the other pie crust, or place it on top as a whole. If you do this though, remember to make holes in the crust with a fork, or cut slits with a knife to let the steam escape. You can seal the top and bottom crusts with your fingers, or by using a fork to press them together.

If you'd like, you can beat an egg with 1 tablespoon water and brush the mixture over the top of the pie, then sprinkle it with sugar. This will give your pie that shiny, sparkly look.

Place the pie in the lower third of the oven. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees. Check the pie after the first 20 minutes of baking, and then at frequent intervals. It's ready when the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling.

Pie Crust*
1 cup (8 oz.) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cold water

Mix flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the dry ingredients, blending until the butter clumps are the size of small peas. Sprinkle cold water over the mixture, and mix together until the dough just holds together. Divide the dough in two, and roll out on a floured surface into two 12-inch rounds. To move the crust to the pan, fold it in half and use both hands to move it so it doesn't stretch, then unfold it when it's in the pan.

*Look, making pie crusts is a pain--even I understand that, and I'm a pie purist. There are very good frozen pie crusts for sale in the freezer section of Whole Foods. If you bake with frozen crusts, defrost before using.

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