By Bob Holeman
I enjoyed a throwback to childhood memories Memorial Day weekend when Diane and I drove a little north of Dodson to pick blueberries at Mt. Grace Farms, the multi-crop operation run by the men of Adult & Teen Challenge of Louisiana.
Now when I say “a little way north,” it’s all relative to a city boy driving down a winding country road, especially if it’s your first trip to the farm. Once you’ve cut through Dodson and turned off on 1235 (Transport Road), you’ll drive a ways and then a little bit farther and after yet a few more hills and curves, you may be tempted to pull over and ask directions. Of whom? Fortunately, this was not our first trip so we knew the destination. I see now that if you call it the right thing (Adult & Teen Challenge, Dodson) Google Maps knows the locale. But sure enough you’ll get there, though there’s a final turn up a dirt road that itself is not too short.
In all fairness, once the blueberry-picking season is fully open soon, they’ll have big signs up all along the route to ensure you find your way. And when you do arrive, you’ll be glad you took the time if berry-picking is in your blood. The guys are friendly and four well-maintained fields will supply more berries than you can put in the gallon ice cream buckets they’ll lend you.
We’ve been a couple of times by ourselves but the Mt. Grace Farm run has also been an adventure with grand-kids. The younger Tennessee pair has a quicker burnout factor than I might have expected. Our two Texas boys have always been here later in the summer than the berry run.
Diane reminds me that the blueberry outings actually go back one more generation when we took youngsters Chris and Laura, together with my brother’s daughters Lexie and Lauren to a different blueberry farm once located on 1232. “Oh, it’s too hot,” they whined and we didn’t stay long.
There may have been some truth to that complaint. It was usually late in the berry season when they’d get here and it was pretty darn hot. I must admit that our session this past week may have been the most pleasant I recall. It was late morning when we arrived, mid-May, partly sunny but a shower forecast that afternoon. A delightful breeze blowing off the irrigation pond at the base of the slope where hundreds of bushes are planted not only felt good but discouraged any bugs that might have thought to bother us.
We began working one row apart but after a while, it seemed like Diane had moved several rows up and some distance down while I worked a strip of 10 bushes in one row, up one side then back down the other. After awhile, Ann from Chatham joined us. Not to worry for there were plenty for all.
Diane was a little disappointed when the rains decided to come early. I’d heard some faint thunder in the distance but when it was audible enough for Diane to hear, we knew it was time to leave. Timing was ideal. A fine mist began to fall as we walked back to the office. While the men decanted the berries from our buckets into plastic commercial boxes, Diane found one of their homemade candles and got in the car as the precipitation gathered strength. The guys put our blueberries into the car while I paid and the rain was really starting to come down as I got in. Our drive home was through a downpour.
When I opened with “childhood memories,” I did actually mean mine. Growing up, we enjoyed finding and picking berries, mostly blackberries and dewberries. They had a lot more thorns than blueberries. Not so plentiful as these commercial blueberries, though better than the six struggling blueberry bushes I planted back of our patio. And since blackberries were in fields or woods around our home, there was generally the additional hazard of ticks and red-bugs. But they were free, God’s gift to boys, and if we were lucky we could sell them to neighbors for 25 cents a pint, the wooden pint box that we reused after we’d eaten the store-bought strawberries.
Fast-forward to LSU days for Diane and me, when berry-picking was still on the agenda. This was partly because we neither had a car to go places and partly because I wouldn’t turn loose the dollars for a Jethro Tull concert (or others) that might come near the campus. Meanwhile a bike ride down South Stadium Drive, across Nicholson, took us to River Road and the Mississippi River levee where we’d find cow pastures and blackberries, wild onions and not much development.
I showed her an old Boy Scout trick there. Mix water and Bisquik and wrap the thick dough around a stick, then roast it over a small open fire to make biscuits of sorts. We even tried it with some wild onions included. I recall that it was fun but not something you’d serve company. The outside was done to near-burnt, the inside was done to near-raw and the onions weren’t much more cooked than when we pulled them out of the ground.
Diane claims there was one saving grace for the recipe. If you’d twist and pull the roasting stick from the cooked bread, hopefully with some of the raw interior still attached, you’d create a small cavity. Poke in a blob of butter and a couple of berries. She said that would make all the peddling worthwhile.
Cheap entertainment then and good memories so many years later.