by Rebecca Horwitz
August is blueberry season in Ulster County, and a more delicious, famously healthful berry would be hard to find. Many of us go berry picking in places like Minnewaska State Park, filling up containers to bring home and transform into goodies like pancakes, muffins and—naturally—blueberry pie. Of course it’s just as rewarding to eat them raw—popping them into yogurt, breakfast cereal or smoothies. In fact, if it’s the antioxidant benefits you’re after, you’re better off eating blueberries raw. New studies, however, show that the antioxidants don’t seem to be destroyed by freezing the berries—so you can go ahead and put some away for after the season.
Besides finding them wild, blueberries can be had by frequenting the local farmers’ markets, or taking the kids to a U-Pick farm. There are a lot in our region.
There’s a long history of blueberry picking for sustenance as well as profit in the Shawangunk Ridge. Native peoples knew of the berries, of course, not just for food but also for medicinal uses. Beginning in the 18th century, intrepid settlers began to venture forth into the hills to pick the berries. But after 1850, when a road to the ridge was built making travel much easier, pickers began to bring their families to stay for the summer, living in simple shacks. The pickers would sell their berries to local merchants—who then sold them to area resorts such as Mohonk—and to merchants in New York City.
By the early 20th century, there were numerous thriving berry-picking shantytowns all around the Shawangunk Ridge. Pickers created a name for themselves as being hard-working, fun-loving people who loved to get together after a long day’s foraging to tell stories, sing and dance, and indulge in drink. Some camps were known for being especially rowdy. After the season was over, they dissipated, leaving their shelters for next year.
We all know this kind of semi-nomadic lifestyle couldn’t last forever. After World War II, the world economy rapidly changed. Commercialized farming became the norm, and blueberries became a much cheaper commodity. The berry-picking industry quietly fell away by the mid-20th century. However, if you visit the beautiful Sam’s Point Preserve in Ellenville, you can see the remnants of these shantytown communities, part of our local heritage.
Speaking of Ellenville, it is there that you can take part in their annual Wild Blueberry and Huckleberry Festival. This year, the festival takes place on Saturday, August 11 from 9am to 4pm, rain or shine. Start your day early with the Blueberry Pancake Breakfast at the fire station on Center Street. Then head over to the blueberry bake sale and pie judging contest. There will be a cultural heritage area to learn more about the history and natural resources of the Shawangunks, many vendors, and live music throughout the day. And definitely bring the kids, as there will be plenty of children’s entertainment.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to know about blueberries is what to do with them. Here is a fairly simple recipe for a blueberry pie—you may have intended to take it to a potluck, but when you’re done I suspect you’ll be tempted to keep it at home to enjoy all by yourself. It’s based on a recipe from one of my old stand-bys, Horn of the Moon Cookbook by Ginny Callan.
Simple Fresh Blueberry Pie
1 double-crust pie shell (make it or buy it, I won’t tell)
1 1/2 pints, about 5 cups, of fresh blueberries
1/2 cup honey
4 Tbs of arrowroot, as a thickener
1 Tbs unsalted butter
1 Tbs lemon juice, plus 1-2 tsp of grated lemon zest
2 Tbs unbleached white flour or whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 tsp salt
- Preheat oven to 425˚F. I know, it sounds awful in August. But pies must bake.
- Fit the bottom crust into a 10-inch pie pan. Refrigerate the other crust for now.
- Mix the honey and arrowroot in a saucepan. Add salt, then berries, and simmer gently. The mixture should become thick and clear.
- Stir in butter, lemon juice and zest, and flour. Stir until just mixed.
- Pour into the prepared pie shell. Place top crust over filling. Join the crusts by pinching or “fluting” the edges.
- Cut a slash in the center of the top crust to allow steam to escape.
Bake 10 minutes at 425˚, then lower the temperature to 350˚ and bake 30 more minutes, til golden. Cool at least one hour.
This article was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Country Wisdom News.