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The Ancient Philosophers go Berry Picking

by my niece, Hope, special to The Strawberry Kitchen

To love wild blackberries is to deny the flesh, at least for a little while.

To find wild blackberries, you have to leave home on the hottest days of the hottest season, carrying a large bucket and accepting its burden in advance. (Hoping for it, in fact.) Ideally, you go out in the early afternoon, when the contrast is highest between leaves and fruit. You will resent this timing.

The berries grow mainly along the sunny edges of clearings, causeways, and fields; they have this in common with poison ivy. It is past their flowering season, so the branches are not beautiful. They are studded with fat ants and wood spiders. Long scratches arc along your arms and legs, self-portraits of the artists. At first, you use a stick to push back the thorns, but the thickets pull it out of your hands — and besides, you cannot hold the stick and fill your bucket at the same time. So you enter, unarmed, the domain of the timber rattlers and submit your ankles to their will.

You grow thirsty and itchy before your bucket is a quarter full, so you will either have to give up or philosophize. College lectures on the ancient Gnostics come to mind, with their doctrine that the spirit and body are two dual entities, one sacred and one profane, one’s ballast cruelly impeding the other’s freedom. Flesh hanging from soul. Soul clinging to air. Air hanging from upper atmosphere. This heresy could help — it feels fitting today, when you’ve halfway evaporated from your body already. Conjure Saint Anthony in the thorns at the far side of the mountain laurel, where he has thrown himself to mortify his flesh and hasten the soul’s ascent. Accept the ivy at your feet; accept the fat bites of the ants and the sweat in your scratches and the smell of rotten fruit. Let your soul escape purely upwards to watch as the bucket fills. Back in the kitchen, you wash your berries but not your wounds.

If you begin preparing your wild blackberries fresh enough after picking, you may still be in Gnostic ecstasy from your time in the thickets, your flesh dulled to the slap of the preheating oven and the lemon juice on your shredded hands. Spiritualized, subsumed, and insensate, you may not even notice the royal color of the juice pooling in the white mixing bowl, or the sound of your grandmother turning magazine pages as she sits down, uncharacteristically, to give you run of the kitchen.

And then, finally, five green bowls are full of your harvest, which has dropped to a kindly temperature but can still purple the ice cream. There are smells of lemon and almond and an oilcloth armchair, elbows on a cool wooden table, moths stumbling towards the porch light, the thrum of a ceiling fan over the night noises of birds and bugs. The low laugh of your grandfather, who loves you. You remember Saint Anthony, still writhing in the thorns outside. He would like this porch scene if he allowed himself. You hope that he lets himself savor a few berries in the dark.

Drawn by the smell of butter, your soul returns from exile just in time for the first bite. Even as the sting of your scratches sets in, you chuckle at your dualist fantasy: The ancient Gnostics may have spent time in the berry thickets, but they clearly never tasted a crumble. As we sit back from the table, our five souls lean in close to lick the last of the ice cream from the bowls.

Berry Crisp for the Soul

Recipe by Hope, Special to the Strawberry KitchenCourse: Baking, Desserts


Prep time


Cooking time




  • Fruit:
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • 25 oz. (about 6 cups) wild blackberries

  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract

  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar

  • 3 Tbs. flour

  • Zest from one lemon

  • Crumble
  • 2 sticks minus 1 Tbs. butter at room temperature

  • 2 1/2 cups flour

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar

  • 1 tsp. salt

  • 3/4 cup rolled oats

  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans

  • 1 tsp. cinnamon

  • 1 tsp. nutmeg


  • Preheat oven to 350.
  • Butter a 9 x 13 casserole dish.
  • Mix all “fruit” ingredients together and pour into casserole.
  • Mix all “crumble” ingredients together until well-combined, and spread over fruit.
  • Bake for about 50 minutes, until crumble is golden-brown and fruit is bubbling up through it.
  • Serve in shallow bowls with vanilla ice cream.


  • This recipe was specially formulated for wild blackberries, which are smaller, less sweet, and drier than store-bought. If using store-bought, we recommend eliminating the maple syrup.

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