More than 20 years ago, my grandfather planted blueberry bushes on his property. I was living in Los Angeles then, but I can remember summer visits and my grandfather telling me that the blueberries were finally ripe and he’d come in with a handful to show me. The truth is, I didn’t care much about his blueberries. It was always too hot to spend time picking them and I didn’t really eat blueberries anyway.
He died almost 10 years ago and I confess, I didn't give those blueberries much thought. I continued to miss him, but I never made the connection to the berries. A couple of summers ago, I moved back home and my grandmother would give us bags of berries to take with us - berries she'd picked from my grandfather's bushes. Because I was now married and had a child who liked blueberries, I started making cakes and cobblers with them. To my surprise, I found I liked them a great deal and I eagerly looked forward to being able to pick them myself.
The first time we went to pick, it was hot and humid and pretty miserable outside. But I thought I'd pick a quart so I could make a cobbler. A half hour into the picking, my husband and son were ready for the indoors. They left me there to pick and it began to rain on and off and I could hear the cicadas starting to hum. And somewhere in the still moments, between the rhythmic plucking of berries and raindrops splashing on leaves, I started to realize exactly what I was having the privilege of experiencing.
Here I was, picking blueberries from bushes planted by my grandfather, who’d already been dead for over eight years. I had shared the experience with my son, who’d never met his great grandfather, and it was the only living thing, besides all of us, left by him. I saw that the bushes had grown over ten feet tall and I suddenly realized how much time had passed and how happy my grandfather would be that we were there, reaping the actual fruits of his labor. And then it was really raining and I was crying and I was picking blueberries as fast as I could, because there were so many and I knew my grandfather had always hated waste.
I have never once gone to the cemetery to visit my grandfather. But I’m positive now that it’s because you don’t find those you’ve lost under a headstone or in an urn. You find them again in the places they inhabited in life, in the things they loved and planted and grew. You find pieces of them inside of yourself and in your children and in a landscape or a favorite recipe, the words of a song, or a cherished book. And sometimes you don’t even know where they are, until you’re still enough to hear them, still enough to realize you’re standing on sacred ground.
I finally went inside for dinner and we’d picked 7 quarts of berries. My grandmother was surprised and said it was the most that anyone had ever picked at one time. Then she went over to a ledger she had and wrote in the date and the amount we’d picked, alongside our names. And I saw that she’d been keeping a log all these years, noting how many berries each season had produced. I knew in an instant that it was her own dialogue with my grandfather, an act of love, a way of remembering what he’d created and what was living on and who was participating. An unspoken promise, perhaps, that even if he was gone she’d carry on with this small ritual that had been so important to him.
I was so grateful for that time alone out there in the bushes and for the gift of being able to visit with my grandfather one more time. And I came home and I made cobbler and it was even better than the year before.
1½ cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
5 Tbsp. frozen butter, cubed
1/4 cup frozen shortening, cut into large chunks
5 Tbsp. ice water
4 cups blueberries
4 Tbsp. butter, diced
1 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease an 8x8-inch baking pan. In the work bowl of a food processor, combine the flour and salt. Quickly cut the butter and shortening into the dry mixture until the size of small peas. Dribble in the ice water a little at a time and process quickly to moisten the mixture until it starts to come together. (This pastry can be made ahead of time and refrigerated between two sheets of wax paper until ready to use.)
Roll out the pastry into a large sheet, approximately 20x12. Lay into the prepared baking dish, gently tucking it into the corners and allowing the extra to hang over the sides. Spread the blueberries evenly in the baking dish. Dot with the diced butter. Sprinkle with almost all of the sugar, reserving a handful for the top of the pastry. Flip the overhanging pastry over the blueberries to make a top. If pieces break off, just set them on top. (The cobbler should look rustic.) Sprinkle the handful of sugar over the top of the pastry.
Place in preheated oven and immediately reduce the heat to 425 degrees. Bake for 45 minutes, until dough is golden brown and berry juice bubbles up. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
NOTE: We call this cobbler but it's really more of a rustic blueberry pie, with a semi-crunchy crust. If you're looking for a biscuit like dessert, this isn't it. But it's fabulous!