Long Reads

The Simple, Perfect Blueberry Pie That Traveled 3 Generations

It's not summer until we've picked blueberries and made a thousand pies.

August 21, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Summer doesn’t happen for me until I’ve had a warm slice of blueberry pie. Growing up, we made them double-crusted and a little tart, from a squeeze of lemon and just a touch of added sugar. And we ate them outside under the stars, barefooted with our hard-earned sunburns.

It’s a pie that suits my general mood toward everything come summertime: a) simple; and b) requires minimal time indoors. The prep is almost negligible, especially if you choose store-bought crust (it’s summer, c’mon): no peeling, pitting or hulling. Even for the filling, you can skip measuring entirely, eyeballing ingredients and adjusting the sugar, lemon, and spices to taste (note: all optional).

I recently unearthed a 19th-century pie recipe that read: “when molasses is preferred, use three spoonfuls and a little cinnamon instead of nutmeg.” I envisioned a blueberry pie with a hint of molasses sweetness, and imagined swapping my usual scoop of vanilla ice cream for a spoonful of créme fraiche.

Why not?

This blueberry pie is a care- and stress-free recipe that invites tweaking at your whim. And that’s another joy of summer, right? Chasing our whims a little more than usual, letting the weather dictate the rhythms of our days.

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Top Comment:
“It was apple pie, from the tree on our front lawn that I grabbed apples off of as my brother and sister ran to catch the school bus... Tasting those apples 30 years later brought back vivid memories of my childhood. My mom would make the pies, that we too added the scoop of ice cream to and enjoyed them in under a harvest moon! It was that tree, that your Grandfather (Gene) picked apples from and your Grandma Therese lovingly baked pies for us... Sadly, the tree was destroyed in a storm this year... Your cousin Declan is trying to grow another one from a sapling he cut from it. We'll keep you posted if it grows and bears those crispy delights! Of course, you'll be invited to bake with us!”
— HungryTom
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As kids, we picked the berries to fill our pies, back when my siblings and I spent every weekend with our cousins and second cousins in the Catskills. Back when we hopped beds between a dark wood cabin and a gingerbread-esque A-frame near my grandparent’s home; back when long, hot days were swallowed up by a series of discrete missions, one of which was the temporal nexus of blueberry picking.

Beginning just after breakfast, we marched like tiny kings and queens through wild grass fields humming with cicadas. I’d pick the ends off of golden wheat stalks and collect them in my T-shirt. For making bread, I thought solemnly (I liked to pretend that I was living off the land). Then, a grasshopper would spring into view and I’d set off chasing it, letting my stockpile fall to the ground.

To escape the heat, we’d jump off a splintery dock into the lake, or go wading barefoot in the chilly, shimmering streams, where we’d stalk crayfish underneath slippery rocks. They darted through the water tailfirst, and you had to move fast and pinch with two fingers right behind their lobster-like claws. We’d lift a blue-red creature out of the water victoriously, then immediately set it free and start searching for its cousins.

When it rained, we walked along mossy roads and collected bright orange salamanders. I’d gently stroke their soft side bellies, then carry them far from the road to safety.

Come late July, when blueberry season entered its prime, we set off into the woods to our favorite spots—where we knew the blueberries grew so thick that you could drag your fingers along the branch and let them fall into your container by the dozen.

“We used to tie old Quaker Oats canisters around your necks with string,” my mom recently told me, looking quite pleased with her ingenuity, “so you wouldn’t drop the blueberries!”

Sometimes, when you first started picking, as the berries dropped thump thump into the bottom of the container, it felt like you’d never fill it up. Demoralized, I’d eat a handful, squandering my reserve. But pretty soon the pile started to grow; your container got a little weighty and you started to feel a sense of accomplishment. Your momentum grew alongside visions of blueberry pies you’d eat later that evening.

We’d return with purple-stained fingertips and mouths, dumping our loot into large, metal bowls in the kitchen. There, the hard, light-green, unripened blueberries would be flicked away, the rest would be washed, and the adults would bake them into pies and muffins—but those were matters for adults. For us kids, the missions were strictly outdoors.

The sky darkened. Grown-ups sipped cocktails and homemade wine spritzers out of hard plastic cups painted with red and yellow flowers. A barbecue set over stacked stones sizzled. Fireflies started blinking in the lawn, and we trapped them with our hands and collected them in glass jars. Streams trickled while crayfish nestled themselves under slippery rocks. The sweet smell of cooked blueberries filled the cabin kitchen.

After dinner, we ate blueberry pie with scoops of Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream under the inky blue sky, searching for the three stars of Orion’s Belt, or the handles of the Big and Little Dippers. We’d go to sleep tired and sunburnt, with skinned knees and visions of the next day’s missions in our heads.

Now that we’re the adults, years later, it’s our turn to bake the pies. But we live farther away and each year fewer of the cousins make it back to the Catskills, which, to our amusement, has become something of a destination—home to rustic-meets-modern boutique hotels and barn weddings illuminated by tea lights.

The land has changed, too. Some of our old blueberry spots have vanished, where violent storms have caused trees to fall and loggers had to clear the land.

I have my own daughter now, Mimi. And at 4 months old, she’s too young to pick blueberries. Still, I want to give her that same flavor of summertime I had growing up. And I hope that with time, new bushes will grow and I’ll tie an oatmeal canister around her neck and send her into the woods. Her summer nights will smell like warm blueberry pie and each day will be filled with her own frivolous adventures.

This is why we traveled from Paris, where we now live, to spend a few weeks in my childhood home in upstate New York. My sister drove with her four daughters from Dallas and my brother came from Brooklyn, too.

As I head toward the few spots where blueberry bushes still grow, I have Mimi strapped to my chest so she can observe how it’s done. And I keep dropping blueberries into an old takeout container thump thump until I’ve got at least a pie’s worth.

Meanwhile, a crayfish darts backward through a nearby stream. Maybe we’ll go find it before heading home to make a pie.

Did you pick blueberries like this growing up? Tell us your earliest summer memories in the comments below.

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    MarZig
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    Auntlise
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Caitlin is a Paris-based writer and editor.

15 Comments

MarZig September 7, 2019
Thank you for your story along with the recipe. It reminds me of what summer should be and was when I was a kid. I can't wait to try making the pie....your story has made it even more of a must do before summer is really over....
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. September 9, 2019
There's still time!! Happy baking :-)
 
HungryTom September 3, 2019
Your piece brings back some wonderful memories from my childhood to present day. It was apple pie, from the tree on our front lawn that I grabbed apples off of as my brother and sister ran to catch the school bus... Tasting those apples 30 years later brought back vivid memories of my childhood. My mom would make the pies, that we too added the scoop of ice cream to and enjoyed them in under a harvest moon! It was that tree, that your Grandfather (Gene) picked apples from and your Grandma Therese lovingly baked pies for us... Sadly, the tree was destroyed in a storm this year... Your cousin Declan is trying to grow another one from a sapling he cut from it. We'll keep you posted if it grows and bears those crispy delights! Of course, you'll be invited to bake with us!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. September 4, 2019
I love that ! Let's hope for lots of crispy apples next fall, and maybe we can take over Declan's beautiful new kitchen to bake those pies :-)
 
Emingus August 27, 2019
And your article my dear cousin is what it’s all about. You’ve hit the old nail on the head.
Cousin Eric
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. August 28, 2019
Kind words from my most important critics :) Thanks so much Xxxo
 
Auntlise August 23, 2019
Caitlin,
Wow! You just described my summer at Birchwood! What a great treat to read this eloquent description. The Huckleberries will come back and we will be picking again, I'm sure. Love you guys, A. Lise
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. August 24, 2019
I am SO happy you think I managed to capture a little bit of the magic of Birchwood! Tons of love xxxxooo
 
Auntlise August 24, 2019
That's what your father always called Birchwood...magical! Love to you , Guillome, and Mimi.
 
Miss K. August 22, 2019
When I was about 8 my family was in Northern California camping. We picked a bunch of Huckleberries (quite a novelty for us at the time.) I remember that my mom decided to make jam. She added a copious amounts if sugar & we stirred it endlessly.*Note: cooking ANYTHING is not my mom's forte-even then.
Now, a bazillion years later I make Huckleberry sweet rolls,cookies,cakes and Huckleberry BBQ sauce. Sadly, I don't live anywhere remotely close to where they grow, so I have to mail order them. I think their flavor is by far, superior to blueberries.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. August 22, 2019
I agree with you! I love the tartness of huckleberries <3 <3
 
gandalf August 21, 2019
"Blueberries for Sal": kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. August 22, 2019
Never heard of that book before! Looks sweet, thanks for sharing!
 
gandalf August 22, 2019
I have fond memories of reading "Blueberries for Sal" (along with other McCloskey books, such as "Make Way for Ducklings") to my kids years ago. And our family would pick blueberries at a farm in the Michigan "Thumb" when we travelled there to visit family every summer.
 
Author Comment
Caitlin R. August 22, 2019
I've never been to Michigan but it sounds wonderful. I'm going to buy that book for Mimi. Thanks again!