The North American Blueberry and My Blueberry Layer Cake Recipe
For many reasons, blueberries are the second most popular berry in America (after the strawberry). Not only are they delicious and remarkably versatile, but this little berry is the perfect ingredient in sweet and savory dishes. 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. Today, blueberries are grown worldwide, notably in Canada, Chili, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. In America, the state of Washington is the leading producer annually (Oregon is a close second) with over 96.1 million pounds. However, Hammonton, New Jersey's quaint town, is the Blueberry Capital of the World. 80% of all the blueberries grown in New Jersey come from this one town. Since the 1980s, the town has celebrated its crop by throwing a party called the Red, White, and Blueberry Festival. I must add this town to my bucket list, as not only do they host the Blueberry festival, but the town also throws a few other food and beverage events throughout the year; the Mount Carmel's Italian Festival (which dates back to 1875 and is considered the oldest such continuously running festival in the United States), Hammonton Fall Beer Festival, and the Hammonton Food Truck Festival. Canada is second in blueberry production, and the berry is the most significant fruit crop, thanks to more than half the country's 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 were grown in North America long before European colonization. The fruit was a staple summer food for the indigenous people, grown between May and the late summer. In 1620, when the "city people" known as the Pilgrims arrived, they quickly learned that they lacked basic skills and knowledge of food, precisely what they could eat and how to collect it. With a great deal of help from the indigenous people, the colonists would embrace their surroundings and learn about the native foods. The blueberry was said to be introduced to the Pilgrims in Plimoth (Plymouth) by the indigenous people, 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 accepted what the land provided them and 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. In the 18th century, drinking water was still a bit of a foreign thought; alcoholic beverages were the thirst quencher for all ages, including cider, ale, and mixed drinks. A Shrub is fruit cooked and muddled into sugar and vinegar, resulting in fruity syrup. The syrup is then often added to alcohol, for example, brandy. Blueberries, cherries, peaches, whatever 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 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. It consisted of only two spoonfuls of sugar 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 was at that time the "mother of standard measurements" that 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' 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." After the discharge of the cannon and raising of the American flag, the members sat down for a proper feast at 11 am, which included a sampling of the food the colonists would have found from the earth and sea, including whortleberry, the cousin of the blueberry. 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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