by David Cecelski
Tonight at our beaver pond my mother and I picked our first wild blackberries of the summer. We had been waiting for the berries to ripen for weeks. We were afraid that, once they finally turned black, the birds might get them all before we could eat any, but we needn’t have worried. The birds had mercy on us and the vines were laden down with sweet, delicious berries. We stood in the brambles and picked until we had scratches all over our hands and arms, but no regrets.
The blackberries at the beaver pond made me think of an old, traditional blackberry recipe that I first learned from Maude Ballance, a friend’s aunt and one of the finest cooks on Ocracoke Island. A couple years ago, she told me that, when she was a girl, there was a big blackberry thicket in a cow pen across from the Ocracoke Fire Hall. “You had to go in there,” she said, “and when you see the cows coming, you run.”
“We’d go blackberrying early mornings and get them and then we’d go home and wash them, put them in a pan and dry them out,” she told me. “Mama would take flour and water—you don’t put any shortening in your flour—and roll it out on a napkin. Then she’d take a handful of blackberries and put it in and roll it up. You could put them in a big pot of hot water and boil them for about 5 minutes or you could put them in the oven and bake them.”
“Then you make egg sauce to eat over them,” she said. “You take the white of an egg and beat it real stiff. Then you take the rest of the egg and mix it in. Sugar to your own taste, and [add] some vanilla flavoring, and beat it and it’ll be just as creamy and it’ll go over your dumplings.”
In the old fishing villages between Ocracoke Island and North River, blackberry dumplings are a quintessential summer delicacy. They’re still made today, though you do have to work a little harder to find blackberry thickets than you did when Mrs. Ballance was a girl.
Of the recipe’s origins, nobody is really sure. Generally speaking, Ocracoke’s cookery was shaped by long-forgotten trade routes and a self-sufficiency born of being located 25 miles off the mainland. In some of the island’s other recipes, you can taste the flavors of the English coast, especially Devonshire and Cornwall, where many of Ocracoke’s 18th-century colonists first went to sea. Maybe that’s the source of blackberry dumplings, too.