Late august, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
So says Seamus Heaney in his incredible poem “Blackberry-Picking.” Stop whatever you are doing and read this poem aloud to yourself.* Glossy purple clots. Summer’s blood. Sticky Bluebeard palms. It is impossible for me to read this poem without feeling bittersweet pinpricks of certain memories: blackberry-picking (of course) with my cousins as a toddler, looking at bugs in my backyard as an awkward kid, skinny-dipping in Barton Springs with my best friends as a (still awkward) teenager.
The poem mentioned above holds a very special place in my soul. I first read it in senior-year English literature when our teacher, Mr. Gardner, had us write an essay about it at the end of the year. There is something terribly sad but ultimately beautiful and cathartic about “Blackberry-Picking” in its slow, steady, rhythmic melancholy. It feels like growing up. When I read it, I’m reminded of Gardner, which is appropriate because leaving his class is one of the few bad things about growing up and leaving high school. He’s hands-down the best literature teacher I’ve ever had, which is saying something coming from a girl in a literature-heavy honors program and double-majoring in English literature.
Reading it feels like the last few nights of summer, like solitude, like getting old but still feeling young and moving into your new apartment and realizing you don’t know how to do your taxes or fix your own car or know how long it takes for food in the fridge to go bad. But as sad as it is, it’s also wonderful. The last few nights of summer are sometimes the best nights, and being alone is sometimes exactly what I need, and getting old but still feeling young means I get to have my own kitchen and live with best friends. And even though an uneaten blackberry will eventually ferment, it doesn’t make the “lovely canfuls” any less delicious when they’re ripe.
I was inspired to bake these crumb bars after a visit to Thorndale (Preston’s tiny hometown, residence to about 350 families). Around Mother’s Day, blackberries are growing everywhere there. They were the most delicious berries I have ever tasted in my life, but by the time I got to them there weren’t enough for this recipe. However, I did make some delicious itty bitty blackberry pies. For this recipe I just used plain ol’ storebought berries.
Blackberry Crumb Bars, adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
1 c. sugar
1 t. baking powder
3 c. flour
1 c. butter
1/4 t. salt
Zest and juice of one lemon
4 c. blackberries
1/2 c. white sugar
4 t. cornstarch
Preheat the oven to 375°. Line a cake pan with parchment paper. In a decent sized bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest. Blend in the butter and egg until there are pea-sized chunks and the dough is crumbly. Scoop half the dough into the pan and pat it down. In another bowl, mix together the sugar, cornstarch, and lemon juice. Fold in the berries, a cup at a time. Pour the blackberry mixture into the pan, and spoon the rest of the dough over the blackberries. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden-brown and crumbly-looking. While it is in the oven, run to the grocery store and get ice cream. Let the bars cool completely before you cut it into squares.
*Please, for the love of God, please, do not listen to the NPR All Things Considered reading. I made that mistake so you didn’t have to. There is folksy music shit in the background and the reader is way too chipper. It sounds like Mister Rogers is cheerily discussing the sweet flesh of childhood turning sour and rotting. NOT OKAY NPR, NOT OKAY