Blueberries are the second most popular berry in America (after the strawberry) for many reasons; not only are they delicious and remarkably versatile, this little berry is the perfect ingredient in sweet and savory dishes, but they also pack significant nutrients to help fight against heart disease and inflammation. Blueberries, like their sister berry cranberries, are native to North America and are from the same family as bilberries (Europe) and huckleberries. The fruit made its way commercially to Europe in the late 19th, but one would surely assume that they were brought to England and beyond long before that time. America produces the most blueberries worldwide with the state of Washington as the leading producer annually with over 96.1 million pounds, however the quaint town of Hammonton, New Jersey is known as the Blueberry Capital of the World. 80% of all the blueberries grown in the state of New Jersey come from this one town. Since the 1980s, the town celebrates their crop by throwing a party called the Red, White and Blueberry Festival. I need to add this town to my bucket list as not only do they host the Blueberry festival, the town also throws a few other food and beverage events; The Mount Carmel's Italian Festival (which dates back to 1875 and is considered the oldest such continuously run festival in the United States), Hammonton Fall Beer Festival, and the Hammonton Food Truck Festival. Canada is a close second in blueberry production, and the berry is the largest fruit crop in the country thanks to more than half the countries cultivation in British Columbia. Now I am getting ahead of myself (the thought of a good food festival always distracts me), let me take you back to 17th century North America.
Blueberries have been grown in North America long before the European
colonization. The fruit was a staple summer food for the Native Americans, grown between May and the late summer. The Pilgrims were in essence "city people"which played a factor into their lack of food in 1620. Though the land was rich in berries and food, they lacked the skills and knowledge to collect it. The settlers would soon have to embrace their surroundings and accept the indigenous foods, though they would need some help. In fact, the blueberry was said to be introduced to the Pilgrims in Plimoth (Plymouth) by the Natives, most likely in the summer of 1621. In time, the colonists would use berries, like blueberries, in their meals and drinks. By the 18th century, the colonists not only accepted what the land provided them, they embraced it, even using the ingredients to make alcoholic beverages. One of the drinks enjoyed by the people in the early 1700s was called a Shrub, which is now making a comeback; you could have knocked me over last week with the awesome restaurant at the end of my street (Terra Luna, North Truro, MA) was serving different kinds of Shrubs. In the 18th century, drinking water was still a bit of a foreign thought, alcoholic beverages was the thirst quencher for all ages including cider, ale, and mixed drinks. A Shrub is simply fruit that has been cooked and muddled into sugar and vinegar, creating a syrup. The syrup is then often added to alcohol, for example brandy. Blueberries, cherries, peaches, what ever was available was made into Shrubs.
Today, blueberries are often associated with a classic American dessert; blueberry pie. Berry pies were made in Europe long before they were made in America, however the first documented recipe I could find for the dessert was in the 1872 The Original Appledore Cookbook: Containing Practical Receipts (recipes) from the Plain and Rich Cooking. The author, Miss Maria Parloa, called her dessert the Berry Pie and it consisted of only 2 spoonfuls of sugar to be added to the blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and currants. By 1910, the blueberry pie was in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Boston Cooking School), and it is at that time that the "mother of standard measurements" would add molasses and more sugar, sweetening the dessert.
When I was crafting the recipes for my cookbook, A Thyme to Discover; Early American Recipes for the Modern Table, I came across an event that initially took place in 1769 called the first Forefathers's Day. At the Old Colony Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the members voted to celebrate America and its founders by throwing a feast on December 22. The members were asked to come in plain and simple clothes, "all appearance of luxury and extravagance being avoided, in imitation of our worthy ancestors whose memory we shall ever respect". Beautiful. After the discharge of the cannon, and the raising of the American flag, the members sat down for a true feast at 11am, which included a sampling of the food the colonists would have found from the earth and sea, including whortleberry, the cousin of blueberries. I created a buttermilk battered blueberry layer cake with a crumble topping in honor of this event, which still takes place. Like Miss Maria Parloa in 1872, I held back on the sweetness to let the blueberries shine. I love this cake, and I hope you do as well.
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