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An astonishment of huckleberries

Most years, you have  to be patient, persistent, and tough. But one year...

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Leslie Renkin/Journal Star/AP

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It’s just how it is. A view you earn in your hiking boots is better than the very same view you drive right up to. A marriage you’ve knit together for 30 years is a treasure you can’t imagine on your wedding day. A pie made from huckleberries that took you all day to pick is better than a pumpkin pie made from filling you shlorped out of a can and added evaporated milk to. And so we go pick huckleberries, every summer. It’s a trudge up the mountain, but there’s treasure in the trudging, too. You’re not going to swat these berries into a pail in the lowlands.

You pray for a pieful and hope your humility will be rewarded with enough for two or three. The berries are tiny and sparse, sapphire-rare, and you drift slowly through the bushes, as attentive to a blue speck as any miner looking for a glint of gold. An hour later you can still see the bottom of the bucket. If you accidentally drop a berry, you get on your hands and knees to track it down.

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Some years they seem plentiful, and with what you pick and the pint of berries you buy on the way back home you can eke out a couple of pies. Some years your huckleberries are, botanically speaking, in the Theoretical family. It’s a mystery why fortunes change from year to year, but people speculate: a late snowstorm. El Niño. No one knows.

And then there was this year. We hauled out at our usual spot and found ourselves hip-deep in a sea of blue. I thumbed berries into my bucket; it sounded like a drum solo. After a while I quit picking the ones I’d have to bend over for. Later I narrowed it down to the ones in the strike zone. Then I walked past the bushes on uneven terrain and sought out the ones with a nice flat spot in front of them. Then I quit picking the large berries and concentrated on the huge ones.

By noon I was visiting only the bushes that waved their little limbs in the air and said, “Yowza, yowza, yowza.” A short time later I was ignoring those in favor of the shrubs that offered free checking and a toaster. Toward midafternoon I limited myself to the berries that did a swan dive into my bucket as I passed by. An hour later I began ejecting those that didn’t execute a half-twist on the way in. 

I set aside the largest ones so they wouldn’t make my pies lumpy. They’ll be cut up into steaks and chops and put in the freezer. I ran out of containers for the rest and decanted them into the side pockets of my car.

I have room in my freezer for four pies, which is one more pie than I have the serenity to make. I have enough berries for about 12. There was no reason to keep picking, but I did. Somewhere in this glade I figured I’d find a bush with pie crusts on it.

Already rolled out.

Mary Ann Dabritz’s Hazelnut-Huckleberry Pie

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Mary Ann is my huckleberry-picking partner, and she developed this recipe to do justice to the hours (and hours) we spend gathering berries. The hazelnuts make the crust a little obstreperous. I have found it helps if I sprinkle some flour on the waxed paper before rolling out the dough. There are easier crusts, but this one’s worth the effort.

For the crust: 

1-3/4 cups white flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup ground hazelnuts

3/4 cup unsalted butter

4 tablespoons ice water

2 additional tablespoons of butter

For the filling:

5 cups huckleberries

3/4 cup mixed fruit concentrate
 (or 1/2 cup sugar)

4 rounded tablespoons pearl tapioca

Dash of salt

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

For the crust, combine dry ingredients, then cut in butter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add ice water and mix briefly – just until dough forms a ball. Divide dough in two, wrap each half, and chill at least an hour (longer is better) in the refrigerator. 

For the filling, gently mix ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out each half of dough between sheets of waxed paper, but not too thin, as the nuts make the dough delicate. Transfer one disk to the pie pan. Add filling and dot with 2 tablespoons of butter. Cover with the second disk and crimp the edges. Cut slits for steam to escape. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour.