Thursday, September 1, 2011

You’re my peach, you’re my huckleberry

Peach Huckleberry Pie
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law visited from the Northwest a few days ago, and they brought me a gift: a package of freshly picked wild huckleberries. Fragrant, deeply wild aubergine, Northwest caviar. Enough to make an Idaho transplant weep.

Since we moved from the Northwest to Colorado, huckleberries have become a lost pleasure. Every summer, in the early days of our marriage, we headed out in the truck, berry buckets holding nothing but promise. We drove out into the mountains, the air cool, our chocolate lab, Chip, sitting between us on the bench seat. Sometimes we had a destination in mind. The high alpine openness of Freeze Out Ridge. Or an old cow camp by Elk River where Kirk had gathered huckleberries and cattle. Sometimes we just drove until an area looked promising.

Once we found a spot, we picked in silence—all three of us. Chip liked to eat them off the bushes like a bear, and we shooed him from the bush we were picking. They’re small berries, and it takes time to pick a few buckets full. Eventually, we stopped, our fingertips purple, and pulled out the cooler to have lunch where we were. Then we packed up all our precious cargo and rambled back down to the warmer elevations. 

At home, I poured our harvest into the white sink, and an occasional white spider wriggled out between the berries (usually to be carefully returned to the great outdoors). I filled the sink with water, and let my fingers run through the masses of berries, then picked off pine needles and huckleberry leaves and small twigs. If there was enough, I made jam and froze some for pies and pancakes. Huckleberry buckle—a dessert-like coffee cake—was a must. 

But it’s been ten years since we’ve had a freezer full of berries, and that gift of huckleberries was not only a culinary treat, but a trip back in time.  When I opened our refrigerator door to be greeted by the strong scent of huckleberries, I suddenly felt myself carried home to memories of picking huckleberries with Molly and Stuart, of sharing it with my parents when they’d visit. Of Christmas dinners where we’d open a jar of jam for buttermilk rolls. Huckleberries seasoned our years there, and I miss friends and family who are now so far away.  

There was about ¾ cup. They had to be put to the perfect use, rare treasures that they were. My sister-in-law had, long ago, made a peach huckleberry pie that I still remembered for its perfect blending of scents and balanced sweet-tart flavors. 

It is peach season in Colorado, and I had five perfect peaches from my Colorado sister-in-law sitting on the kitchen counter.

A marriage that was meant to be. I rolled out my piecrust, thinking about how those huckleberries, dark and aromatic, had grown through cool Idaho mornings and ripened as deer and elk rambled by. They’d been through thundering, northwest spring storms, and bird-song evenings.

I skimmed the skin from the peaches, and carefully sliced them as the juice rolled to my elbows. They had grown on Colorado’s Western Slope, in the relative domesticity of a peach orchard, ripening under blue skies in the heat of Colorado’s sun, miles from where the huckleberries were ripening.

I mixed them together, deep purple blending with golden yellow, a touch of cinnamon, sugar and flour. There, in my pie pan, they spoke of our past and our present, of the place we loved and where our marriage was young, where our children were born, and of the place we’d come to where our children were growing and we were still finding our way. Sweet and tart.

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