It’s Superfruit! It’s an American Thang! It’s The Blueberry!

Blueberries
Blueberries (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Call it what you may —  whortleberry, bilberry, huckleberry, starberry, hurtleberry, buckleberry, or blaeberry. A card-carrying member of the Vaccinium family, with all its cousins.

Whatever the Native Americans or the early American settlers called blueberries, today the health media calls them Superfruit. Full of vitamin C and vitamin K, scientists are just now confirming what wise women and shamans have known for centuries: Blueberries really do pack a powerful wallop against certain medical conditions. Some traditional medicinal uses for blueberries include headaches, fevers, eye problems including retinal hemorrhaging, and diarrhea. Berries in the Vaccinium family affect the vascular system and circulation, based on scientific research and not just long observations of native peoples and settlers. A twelfth-century nun and healer Hildegard of Bingen wrote that bilberries, a cousin of the blueberry, were good for “inducing menstruation.” Significant night vision improvement occurs with bilberries, due to polyphenols or antioxidants, glutathione, anthocyanins, and ellagic acid. Some researchers suggest that an anti-carcinogenic effect as well. A half cup of blueberries daily provides a significant health benefit. If the idea of eating that many berries doesn’t sit well with you, try blueberry juice, now available in many markets.

Low-bush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) provided the majority of America’s blueberries, wild and uncultivated, due to the prevalence and fertility of the low-bush variety. Maine blueberries, a wild and low-bush variety, require 50,000 beehives for pollination.

Blueberries at Harvest (Used by permission.)
Blueberries at Harvest (Used by permission.)

Today, the most common cultivated species is Vaccinium corymbosum, the high- bush blueberry. Thanks to Frederick Colville and Elizabeth Coleman White, we now have the high-bush commercial variety of blueberries available during the season, May through October.

One of the only truly indigenous American fruits, blueberries rounded out the Native American diet in numerous ways. In pemmican, which comes from the Cree word pimîhkân, which in turn comes from the word pimî “fat, grease,” blueberries added a little zing and serious nutritional value to this genius of a food. Pemmican ensured the survival of fur traders, who wanted high-quality pemmican made with marrow and less fatty meat. Cooks dried and pounded the berries with dried meat from buffalo, elk, and/or deer. According to some sources, Native Americans did not include blueberries, or any berries for that matter, but non-natives added them later.

Trehane says the blueberry was legendary because it saved many from starvation during the harsh winter seasons of North America. What did people do with the blueberry other than make pemmican? Settlers ate them in stews or with milk and later mixed them with cornmeal or flour to make cakes and bread. Harriet V. Kuhnlein, in her book Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous People, mentions a dehydrated blueberry cake, probably made from mashed berries, dried into flat rounds or cakes. Sometimes cooks preserved the berries in animal fat, like the French way with duck confit. Or they used tried-and-true meat preserving techniques, drying the berries in the sun or smoking berry-laden branches over open fires. Others made fruit paté, perhaps similar to jam. An early recipe using blueberries appeared in Sara Josepha Buel Hale’s 1853 cookbook, The Good Housekeeper.

Thanks to a number of nineteenth-century American cookbook authors like Hale, a wider variety of palatable recipes for blueberries entered into the mainstream of American cookery. With the exception of the pemmican recipe, all of the following recipes come from texts available on The Feeding America Website, a project dedicated to providing texts of early American cookbooks.

So give the “new” Superfruit a chance. It’s a real American thang all right. It’s the blueberry!

RECIPES

Pemmican
Pemmican

PEMMICAN

2 oz. cooked, ground, and dried beef
1/2 oz. dried (heat-dried) ground berries
3 oz. lard or vegetable fat

Put the meat in a container lined with plastic film. Stir in the berries. Melt the fat and let it cool slightly to a gluey consistency. Pour the fat over the meat and let it harden. Wrap airtight and store, preferably in a freezer if you won’t need the pemmican for a while.

From The Complete Light-Pack Camping and Trail Foods Cookbook by Edwin P. Drew.

Sara Josepha Buel Hale" Good Housekeeper
BATTER PUDDING

Take six ounces of fine flour, a little salt, and three eggs; beat up well with a little milk, added by degrees till the batter is quite smooth; make it the thickness of cream; put into a buttered pie-dish, and bake three quarters of an hour; or in a buttered and floured basin, tied over tight with a cloth: boil one hour and a half, or two hours.

Any kind of ripe fruit that you like may be added to the batter,–only you must make the batter a little stiffer. Blueberries or finely chopped apple are most usually liked.

From Sara Josepha Buell (Hale)’s The Good Housekeeper, 1853, p. 66.

STEAMED APPLE PUDDING

2 cups flour.

4 teaspoons baking powder.

1/2 teaspoon salt.

2 tablespoons butter.

3/4 cup milk.

4 apples cut in eighths.

Mix and sift dry ingredients; work in butter with tips of fingers, add milk gradually, mixing with a knife; toss on floured board, pat and roll out, place apples on middle of dough, and sprinkle with one tablespoon sugar mixed with one-fourth teaspoon each of salt and nutmeg; bring dough around apples and carefully lift into buttered mould or five-pound lard pail; or apples may be sprinkled over dough, and dough rolled like a jelly roll; cover closely and steam one hour and twenty minutes; serve with Vanilla or Cold Sauce. Twice the number of apples may be sprinkled with sugar and cooked until soft in granite kettle placed on top of range, covered with dough, rolled size to fit in kettle, then kettle covered tightly and dough steamed fifteen minutes. When turned on dish for serving, apples will be on top.

STEAMED BLUEBERRY PUDDING

Mix and sift dry ingredients and work in butter same as for Steamed Apple Pudding. Add one cup each of milk, and blueberries rolled in flour; turn into buttered mould and steam one and one-half hours. Serve with Creamy Sauce.

From Fannie Farmer’sThe Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, p. 334, 1896.

PEAR AND BLUEBERRY PRESERVES — Pick over and wash two quarts of blueberries, add water to nearly cover and stew them half hour. Mash them well, when all are broken turn into a bowl covered with cheese cloth. Drain well and when cool squeeze out all the juice. Put the blueberry juice on to boil, add one pint of sugar to each pint of juice and remove all the scum. Allow one quart of sliced pears to one pint of juice. Use hard pears not suitable for canning. Cook them in the syrup, turning over often and when soft and transparent skim them out into the jars. Boil down the syrup and strain over the fruit. Fill to overflowing and seal. (p. 114)

BERRY MUFFINS — Mix two cups sifted flour, one-half teaspoon salt and two rounded teaspoons baking powder. Cream one-quarter cup of butter with one-half cup sugar, add well beaten yolk of one egg, one cup milk, the flour mixture and white of egg beaten stiff. Stir in carefully one heaped cup blueberries which have been picked over, rinsed, dried and rolled in flour. Bake in muffin pans twenty minutes. (p. 81-82)

From Rufus Estes, Good Things to Eat, 1911.)

BLACK PUDDING

One quart of blueberries, one pint of water, one cupful of sugar, a five-cent baker’s loaf, butter. Stew the berries, sugar and water together. Cut the bread in thin slices, and butter these. Put a layer of the bread in a deep dish, and cover it with some of the hot berries. Continue this until all the bread and fruit is used, and set away to cool. The pudding should be perfectly cold when served. Serve with cream and sugar.

Any other small berries can be used instead of blueberries.

From Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book and Marketing Guide, 1882, p. 270.

BLUEBERRY MUFFIN CAKE

Makes one 9-10-inch cake

(Adapted from a recipe by Bert Greene)

2 cups fresh blueberries, picked over, washed, drain, and dried on a thick towel

2 1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 ¼ t. ground cinnamon

1 ¼ cups sugar

½ cup butter (1 stick)

2 t. baking powder

½ t. salt

1 ¼ t. pure vanilla extract

1 large egg

½ cup whole milk + 1-2 T. extra if necessary

Grate zest of one lemon

½ cup finely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375. Grease a 9-10-inch spring-form pan. Line the bottom with a circle of waxed or parchment paper. Grease the paper and dust the inside of the pan with flour. Shake out the excess.

Make streusel topping: In a bowl, mix together 1/3 cup flour, the cinnamon, and ½ cup sugar. Cut in 2 T. of butter until you have something that looks like bread crumbs. Reserve.

Mix together the remaining flour, baking powder, and salt; sift. Put blueberries in a dry bowl. Take 1 ½ T. of this mixture and sprinkle over blueberries. Gently stir the flour through all the berries. Reserve.

Place the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl and cream together until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla and the egg, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally. Mix in the lemon rind.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Add 1-2 T. more milk if batter is unusually stiff.

Add the blueberries carefully and fold them in until well distributed throughout the batter. Spoon the batter (remember–it will be quite stiff) into the prepared pan and smooth out evenly.

Sprinkle the chopped walnuts over the top of the cake. Then cover with the cinnamon/streusel topping.

Bake approximately 45-50 minutes, checking often at the end of the baking period. Check for doneness with a toothpick-if the pick is just about dry when removed, the cake is done. Let cake cool in pan for 30 minutes. Remove the springform sides, flip cake streusel side down onto a large plate, remove the pan bottom, and then invert cake, streusel side up, onto the rack. Let cool completely.

Serve with vanilla ice cream.

To freeze blueberries, for when you find a great sale or the season’s bounty requires it: Freeze berries by simply placing fresh berries on a cookie sheet in a singe layer and place the sheet in the freezer. Do not wash berries before freezing. When frozen, remove the berries and put into zippered bags, marking the date. Do not thaw and then refreeze.

Rachael Ray’s blueberry recipes reflect the supposed time crunch faced by modern American mothers. Pancake recipes call for pancake mix like Bisquik. Sad to say, it doesn’t take THAT much time to throw the dry ingredients in a bowl and mix them together. But in case this is your “thang,” here’s the link to Rach’s recipes.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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