It’s the height of summer. Berry season. We’ve been picking and freezing great quantities of strawberries and blueberries. Raspberries are next, if we can catch them before they’re gone. Then the blackberries begin. And that’s got me thinking.
About Block Island, RI, one of our favorite places on the planet, about the blackberries that grow wild there, and also about our daughter, because Block Island is a childhood-summer kind of place, all beaches and bikes and possibilities. So I hope you’ll indulge a bit of nostalgia as I share an essay I wrote two summers ago. It’s about food. And kids. And other things that matter.
We hadn’t planned to take the stairs down the cliff to the beach below. It was late, we’d been cycling all day and our daughter’s bedtime was near. She’s 4. There were what, 150 steps? We heard other people tallying as they returned to the top. There might actually be 200 steps or more. It didn’t seem like a good idea. Tiny, tired legs and all that.
But the coast beckoned. This island, its calm beauty like a salve, had relaxed us all, released us from the stress of my husband’s job loss and made everything simple. Our daughter, reveling in her vacation liberation (staying up late! ice cream every night! muffins for breakfast!), begged to make the descent, so we did. Even when the stairs gave way to a slippery cascade of rocks and slope, she trooped on.
There were many beaches on the island, most more accessible than this. But here island lore hung in the mist as waves crash-caressed the rocky shore. The cliffs we’d just descended mirrored the arc of the waves, clay silhouettes curved up and under against the breathless blue of ocean and sky. In pictures, our daughter is dancing, making funny faces as salty hair whips across her cheeks. She is windswept, we are swept away.
We see the blackberries on the return to the top. On the way down we’d been cautious, watching our daughter navigate the steps, staying always within reach. But the ascent is victorious. She bounds toward the top, leaving us to notice the dense clusters of blackberry bushes along the stairs. I’m sure she’d take the steps two at a time if her legs would carry her.
They’re delicious, the blackberries. Small and tart-sweet. When we start noticing them elsewhere on the island — along roads, in shoreline thickets, on restaurant menus, everywhere — I can’t shake the feeling that they’re telling me a story.
Maybe it’s all this communing with nature, the way my daughter’s face lights up bright and proud after she collects a handful to share with us. Or the way sweet fruit and ocean breezes stir up a perfect moment that amplifies, grows mythic, comes to define a summer.
Then I learn that blackberries symbolize generosity and wealth, healing and protection. A few weeks before our trip, my husband had started a new job, following his second layoff in as many years. When he lost his job, I bought him a money tree plant, more because of silly superstitious why-not than anything else. And he did get that new job. And now there were these portentous blackberries. Everywhere. A new beginning?
The honey we buy at the island farmers’ market comes from blackberry blossoms. Our daughter the honey enthusiast — who’d eat it by the bowl if we’d let her — wants to know why bees like blackberries. For the same reason we do, I tell her, because they taste good.
I don’t explain that it’s actually more complicated. Blackberry plants can self-pollinate. They can bear fruit without help from bees. But to get the best fruit? That takes two. The bees do their dance. The blackberries grow ripe and plump. And — if you believe even a little bit that blackberries can tell a story — the universe sets things right.
What are your favorite food memories? Especially the ones that aren’t really food memories at all…?