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My Strained Relationship With Blueberries

By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe that we turn to time and again:

When I was a girl, July meant blueberries. And blueberries meant agony.

Yes, agony. As in torture, suffering and distress. How we kids dreaded the day when our father would come home from an early-morning tramp on the wind-swept hill that was the highest point in our New England town and make the ominous announcement: "Time for blueberries."

Oh, no. We knew what lay ahead: a day of free play snatched away. Hours of aching tedium in the baking sun, with Dad harping at us if we didn't pick the berries just so.

Up we would trudge to the top of the hill, following our parents in drooping file, the brown paper bags we'd have to fill with the accursed fruit clutched in our sweaty hands.

You have to understand. The blueberries we were after weren't the kind you find at picking farms these days: big, plump orbs that hang thick on shoulder-high bushes and fall into your hands if you so much as give them a stern glance.

The berries we hunted were wild ones, adept at hiding and skilled at camouflage. They grew on bushes low to the ground, so you had to crouch till your legs cramped as you turned over leaf after leaf in painstaking search of them. Worst of all, they were tiny. Filling even a small bag with these little cobalt pearls would take hours, especially if you ate most of what you picked. And kept running off to explore the ruins of the old farmhouse in the distance, or to climb one of the gnarled wild fruit trees that had managed to survive the inhospitable elements, or to dig for "fossils" near the radio tower.

Somehow, in between such forays, we managed to gather enough for Dad to give a curt nod, and then we'd start the happy descent toward home, where we'd get a mugful of berries sprinkled with sugar before heading off, exhausted, to bed after . . . a perfectly wonderful day.

Afterward, there would be blueberries at every meal for a week. Blueberry-filled pierogi, blueberry pancakes and my favorite, blueberry soup. It was one of many delicious and exotic soups my mother made, soup being a staple of our table. She made a soup from wild cherries, and one from apricots, and one from cucumbers (and pickles, too) and one from sauerkraut.

But years later, planning a summertime dinner party, it was the blueberry soup I recalled, knowing that if I could pull it off, it would really impress my guests. I was still a novice cook, but I dug out a recipe and followed the simple steps: Combine the berries and other ingredients in a pot. A cinch. Cook for about 15 minutes. Done. Strain the soup. No problem.

Carefully, I held the strainer over the sink, picked up the pot and poured, watching the cooked berries clump in the sieve . . . and my soup go down the drain. Only my husband can describe the scream he heard a few seconds later.

Luckily, we didn't have to climb a hill in search of more berries. Hubby rushed to Safeway, I started over and the dinner guests were duly impressed. It was all worth it in the end, as it always is when it comes to me and blueberries. But oh, the agony.

Zofia Smardz is an assignment editor for Outlook.

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