Huckleberry Heaven

When I was growing up, my grandparents used to pick huckleberries by the pailful in the woods near Mount Rainier in Washington. So did pretty much everyone they knew. Given its privileged place in the popular imagination—think Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry Hound, "Moon River" 's huckleberry friend—this wild-growing cousin of the blueberry might as well have been the national fruit, as far as they were concerned. But if you're like me and don't live in the Northwest, the berry's native turf, huckleberries don't pop up on your radar nearly often enough.

So, last August, at the height of huck-picking season, I traveled to the Northwest, fueled by visions of those juicy berries my grandparents picked. Having tasted huckleberries mostly in crisps and pies, I started out by visiting some bakers, like Mary Lou Hanks, who, until she passed away last year, ran the baking contest at the annual Huckleberry Heritage Festival in Wallace, Idaho. Her pie, bubbling and fresh from the oven, was as dark as the night sky, and the berries had a musky, sweet flavor and an edge-of-the-tongue tanginess that wouldn't quit. Hanks picked her first huckleberry during the Great Depression, she said: "My mother gave me a cup to fill, but those hucks were so sweet I couldn't help eating them right off the bush."

There are more than a dozen species of berries that go by the name huckleberry in North America, but the kind you'll find at farm stands, fairs, and restaurants in the Northwest are usually the deep purple mountain huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum), which has a fragrant, jammy flavor somewhere between a blueberry's and a blackberry's. Around this time of year, small armies of pickers light out for the mountains in search of the forest clearings where the berries grow; they sell their harvest at local farmers' markets or to grocery stores, restaurants, or produce distributors. All attempts to cultivate the berries have failed, so competition for the limited, erratic supply is fierce.

A few days into my visit, I headed east into Montana's Cabinet Mountains. In the town of Trout Creek, the owners of a restaurant called the Huckleberry Thicket introduced me to a picker named Jeanine Bosker, who agreed to let me tag along with her for a day, provided I kept the whereabouts of her berry patch secret. The next morning, we drove in Bosker's dust-covered pickup past dense stands of cedar and fir into the mountains. Even before we started picking, the cab smelled like huckleberries. "The aroma gets into everything, even your clothes," said Bosker, an energetic 46-year-old who wore a Tom Petty T-shirt.

When we arrived at the patch, we unloaded plastic buckets and handheld pickers, which were nothing more than coffee cans outfitted with a handle and a protruding metal comb. For the rest of the morning, we struggled up steep slopes covered with chest-high huckleberry bushes, sweeping our pickers gently through the foliage to remove the berries. It was hard work. Bosker told me that she does this six days a week during the season. "You pick so much you get 'huckleberry fever'," she said. "When you shut your eyes at night you still see them."

I know what she means. Over the course of my trip, I encountered everything from huckleberry wine to huckleberry syrup, as well as venison, lamb, and pork served with huckleberry sauces. My favorite huckleberry moment, however, occurred at the North Idaho Fair & Rodeo in Coeur d'Alene. In 101-degree heat, I waited in line with about two dozen other fairgoers in front of a lavender-colored booth. A menu board advertised a number of huckleberry treats, including a giant sugar cookie topped with cream cheese and huckleberries, but most people were ordering just one thing: the huckleberry milk shake. I did the same. The berry-studded shake was so dense that I quickly gave up on a straw and went at it with a spoon. I stood outside the booth for a good while, eating one creamy bite after another. The sun was blazing, but at that moment I felt nothing but pure, sweet comfort.