Black Beauties

Happiness can be a brier patch.

When I was a child in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, in the 1950s, there was nothing so beautiful to me as a raspberry patch in the morning sunshine. Mount Lebanon was then just a small town, and the sweet berries seemed to grow everywhere—on roadsides, in fields…and in our little family garden. Every morning there from late June to mid-July, I'd tote my buckets through dew-covered grass, marveling at the stalks—called canes—arching high above my head. The sun warmed my back, and only the drone of insects and the calls of thrushes and cedar waxwings broke the silence. Wearing Daddy's old shirts to protect against thorns and poison ivy, I'd stain my hands violet harvesting the summer's sweetest treasure: black raspberries.

I've nothing against red raspberries, widely grown commercially, or against the now-trendy yellow variety. But I much prefer the richer, more delicate, less commercial eastern black raspberry, found in warmer climes from the Carolinas to New England. Blackberries, which form a different subgenus, have more seeds and retain a white core when picked. As a kid, I paid as much attention to the differences between berries as I did to getting at the best ones. After taking all the ripe ones in sight, I would crouch down, lift the silver-undersided leaves, and reach into the tangle to find, in the bramble's darkest recesses, the blackest, sweetest, and most voluptuous berries in the patch. Heading home, I often imagined the wonders that awaited me that evening—black raspberry pie oozing with juice, black raspberry coffee cake, even chocolate ice cream studded with the tender gems.

Most of Mount Lebanon's fields are now planted with thickets of suburban housing. I still live in a rural area nearby, though, and I still go out picking whenever I can. When I must resort to farmers' markets, I always choose berries that are plump, dry, and fresh. On my drive home, sneaking a few from the box, I recall the berries that used to sneak into my mouth instead of the bucket—fair wages for a morning's work.