Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Magic berries

Posted By on Tue, Aug 23, 2011 at 9:35 PM

Early one morning in the summer of 1997 I opened our kitchen door in Lafayette, Louisiana to find a plastic grocery bag with half a dozen droopy weeds, spotted with a few leaves and thorns. Beside the door, the light blinked on the answering machine.

“I uprooted some blackberries in the woods yesterday,” said Dr. Straub, my husband’s old Lafayette friend. “…and I left them at your door.”

I was newly married after years on my own and had no idea what to do with blackberries, much less scrappy plants. Simultaneously I struggled, after growing up in a condo on the beach with girls, to find my place in a suburban, know-thy-neighbors house of boys —my husband, his two sons, and his friend Romain- plus a feisty mother-in-law.

The Winning Cakes, 1978; George Rodrigues mother baked coconut cakes for years for the church fair in New Iberia; each year his father purchased the same cakes, paying $5

In a strange home and stranger city, I sought instruction in odd places, because the internet was still a mystery. I turned to cookbooks, especially Marcelle Beinvenu’s Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?, where I found recipes and stories, my lifeline that first year, as I tried to please my new Cajun family.

“Throw them out,” said George, about the roots.

But I hoped to impress his friends, especially the ones, like Dr. Straub, who tried a friendship with me.

GR_and_Straub.jpg
  • George Rodrigue and Dr. John Straub at the 'Pink Building,' The Lafayette Art Museum, with the Rodrigue painting Dr. and Mrs. Straub donated to the museum, 1976

Using a small spade I turned an area of dirt in the backyard and buried the roots.

I had great success with Miracle-Gro on our garden out front, so I gave it a try, feeding the roots every week for months. Dr. Straub stopped by:

“You’ll never have berries!” he said. “Just leave them in the ground and forget about them.”

By this time, however, the roots rooted, and they grew, so fast that within a month, fearing snakes, I rigged a trellis using George’s picture wire and a few plywood canvas stretcher strips, as the roots became plants and the plants stretched skyward.

“Don’t use wire!” said Dr. Straub. “You’ll fry the plants.” But I continued, because it twisted easily, and because we had lots of it.

Dr. Straub was partly correct. We had no berries that year. But by the following summer, the mass of blackberry vines stretched taller than me, as I added wood and wire every few months.

After a year I stopped feeding, and in June of 1998, the vines blossomed. By August we had blackberries the size of golf balls. The birds and squirrels avoided the hot wire, and I picked berries nearly every morning.

I impressed my family and made friends with those berries — through pies, cakes, cobblers, and plain bags-o’-berries.

That year we installed a convection oven. I ordered subscriptions to Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Southern Living. I bought a decorating kit and tried, but failed, to pipe neat designs, opting instead for a big, goopy, moist mess. I made cakes nearly every day.

Like her son, Georges mothers favorite cake was coconut, like this one baked by her niece Catherine for Marie Rodrigues 103rd birthday, 2008
  • Like her son, George's mother's favorite cake was coconut, like this one baked by her niece Catherine for Marie Rodrigue's 103rd birthday, 2008

My best cakes, from the beginning, were coconut, carrot, and strawberry. I soon substituted blackberries for the strawberries, however, slicing those egg-size berries between the cake layers, something I haven’t duplicated since.

You see, when we sold our house and moved to New Orleans, I went back for the berries — just one root, I thought. Yet they were gone, mowed over and smothered in weed-killer by an ambitious realtor, determined to ‘clean up’ our yard.

She never did sell our house, and two years later we sold it ourselves, ironically to Dr. Straub’s daughter and her family, no doubt familiar with the family connection, but perhaps the earthy one as well.

Today, fond of the Ponchatoula connection near New Orleans and the Watsonville connection near Carmel, I stick with the strawberry cake. I don’t rely on the cake-crutch for friends anymore, but I bake anyway, remembering a family that loved blackberry cake, a mother-in-law who hid leftovers beneath her bed, and a good friend, now in his nineties, who brought something special — magic, really — to my new world.

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Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

For a related post see “Remembering Lafayette’s Advocates for the Arts, Circa 1969” from Musings of an Artist’s Wife

For more on an old Cajun (no, French!) mother-in-law see the post “Marie Courrege Rodrigue

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