Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Cobbler and the Cobbler Pan (anniversary repost)

I just made a Memorial Day blackberry cobbler. My husband came home with a whole case of blackberries from the Farmer's market, and as I washed each pintful and spread them out to drain on a kitchen cloth, I was having flashbacks to the summers of my childhood - pounds of blackberries piled in milk jug pails!

I made the cobbler in such a way as to make my Mama proud, I hope. The pastry was thick, the blackberry filling deep - no lemon zest, just a hint of cinnamon. It was delicious. Still, I can't believe it held anything to Mama's Tennessee blackberry cobblers. I told my friends that the preparation of her cobblers was like witchcraft - stirring hot, bubbling juices for what seemed like hours in a cauldron-like pan on the stove...well, despite the grueling nature of its preparation, I'd like to have it again if I could. At any rate, this post melds two earlier ones about that tremendous cobbler and about the very special pan that held it every summer.

The Cobbler

Where I grew up in Tennessee, wild blackberries grew in abundance. They were plumpest and juiciest in late July and August, fully ripened with the heat and the humidity. My parents, siblings and I would hike down the long lane from our little house and climb a gate into Mr. Spann's field. There in a hollow shaded by trees, the blackberry bushes formed a beautiful tangle of leaves, berries and thorns. For our equipment we had milk jugs with the tops cut off and our own two hands.

My sister Vinca was an expert at not getting pricked with the thorns as she harvested the deep purple berries. Annie and I kept up a chorus of "ouch!" the whole time. My berry-picking form was not the best in other ways, too, for I would obsessively pluck practically all the berries from a bush, no matter their size or degree of ripeness. When Dad glanced my way, he'd say, "Whoa, Hoo-doo! Leave some for the birds."

He should have added, "And some for the pail!" because many berries got eaten before they landed in our humble milk-jug pails, our fingers and mouths stained purple with the evidence. But those lucky ones that made it back down the lane to home were destined for mom's blackberry cobbler.

To this day I have yet to find anything that could compare with my mom's blackberry cobbler. It was the culinary equivalent of heaven, but the preparation, at least to us kids, was brutal. We had to take turns stirring the blackberry, sugar and cornstarch mixture over the hot stove until it had practically formed a jam. Mom would come in to inspect every few minutes, lifting the spoon from the bubbling mixture and shaking her head tersely in answer to our pleading eyes.

When she finally decided it was ready, the mixture was poured into the dough-lined cobbler pan (a pan with a slightly rounded bottom that was so large we kids used it to go sledding on the rare occasion we got snow). After what seemed like an eternity, it emerged from the oven, steaming from beneath its thick golden layer of homemade pastry. I can still see it resting on the grates of our old wood-burning stove in the living room, Mama slicing it open with a thick knife as steam rose and the smell of it bloomed in our home. We always ate the first slice warm, very warm - cooled only enough to prevent the burning of our mouths with its delicious purple filling. The taste and smell of it is something I can still conjure up in my mind and something, too, which will always embody the bountiful summers of my childhood.

I won't have that cobbler again, I imagine, but it is still my favorite dish in the world. I don't have my mom's talent with pastry dough and, sadly, I never attempted to learn it growing up. And the last time I had wild blackberries was the final summer I spent with my parents in Tennessee. My siblings had all journeyed away from our home, and it was just my dad and me braving the humidity and thorns to pluck memories from the blackberry bush.

But here's my summer wish for you, my friends, wherever you may be: I hope you are lucky enough to find or make for yourself your own perfect berry cobbler. And may you share your bounty with family and friends.
Ode to the Cobbler Pan

While driving with my family to Christmas Eve Mass today, I was admiring the clear skies and clear ground and the sunshine of this desert valley town. Indeed, this is my first year living here that the persistent sunshine around the holidays has not irked me as ill-placed winter carols jingle from my car stereo. Though we've gotten a little rain lately and the sky has not been its usual bright self, today I truly thought to myself, "Ah, boy, this is Christmas! Warm. No snow on the ground. Clear and beautiful."

Strange. I never thought a southern gal like me would let her roots sink in this clay soil. But here I am in Arizona, and shockingly I'm finding I'm beginning to yearn for my own southwest ranch home, maybe some horses and a back porch that abuts BLM land. And I wouldn't mind more Christmases spent beneath a clear sky and full sunshine.

Still...a tune such as White Christmas never fails to call me warmly back to that traditional idea of a snowy cold Christmas with mittens on my hands and furry boots for my feet and my kids and dogs prancing through the fresh powder on the lawn...oh, and a good long slide in a sled down the nearest big hill.

I never had a real sled. In Tennessee, the opportunities to go pell-mell down a hill on such a contraption weren't often or good enough to warrant the investment. But when the snow came and it stuck, you can bet my siblings and I were rooting around for something, anything that would give us the speed we craved in flying down the big hill in the field.

Ode to the cobbler pan!

Whose cobbler pan this is, I think I know

Mom will not mind if we use it though

To send our bottoms racing down the hill

And hitting a cornstalk, take an awesome spill

Which our siblings will see and laugh about

Til we head home...cold, worn-out

The pan was shiny aluminum, rounded on the bottom and deep with a small lip around the rim. It had been given to my parents in a set for a wedding day gift, I believe. I don't know who first thought of using that old aluminum pan for a sled. Maybe Mama suggested it, giggling at the idea of our little bottoms stuck into the pan in which she baked the deepest, purplest, most scrumptious blackberry cobblers one could ever hope to experience. Or maybe it was Annie, who always was so very skinny and was able to fit into it years after she should have outgrown it. But maybe it was destiny...for us four kids and for the pan.

I can remember many an occasion, heading across a white field toward the long slope that came down between the lines of trees with one of my siblings swinging the cobbler pan in their hands. We usually had hubcaps, too, but the bond there was never strong. We didn't feel love for those hubcaps, no loyalty for their many years of faithful snow-day service. They were just something we picked up as extras along the way. But the pan? We hunted it down on a packed snowy day, pulling it with clatters and clunks from beneath a pile of other pots and pans in the kitchen, dragging it out into daylight after its months of hibernation post-blackberry season.

On the hill we kids would spend a good deal of time clearing our sledding paths of pebbles and broken cornstalks from the summer's harvest. It was cold, hard work. Good exercise, too, and we loved it even if we did have to stop and breath the life back into our fingers which were adorned only in some of Dad's old socks.

With cleared paths at last, we'd balance the pan and a hubcap at the top of that hill - two of us at a time, and two behind ready to give a push whether requested or not. If you were the one in the pan, you held onto that tiny lip of metal around the rim as you teetered near the launching point, then you lifted your legs and got a shove from behind. Down you went, spinning all the way with the world a blur of barking dogs and laughing siblings, and all the while you're thinking, I hope I don't go into that gulch at the bottom or biff it hard on a cornstalk. You knew you'd get a few colorful bruises if you did. But if you were still intact, pan and kid, when you stopped spinning and slowly skidded to a stop at the bottom of the hill, you laughed in victory before hauling the pan back up the hill to the sibling waiting for their turn in it.

We'd take turn after turn speeding in the pan until our hands, noses and bottoms were thoroughly frozen. Then we'd head home, satisfied as only kids can be in their puerile pursuits of adventure, with the smoke curling above that little square house serving as a beacon to call us to a warm harbor. At the front porch we'd quickly stamp our shoes on the steps, and going in, we'd dump the cobbler pan on the ground and peel off our wet jackets and Dad's old socks by the front door, eager to reach the wood-burning stove and hold our numb hands above its hot surface.

A snowy day did come when none of us kids could fit into the cobbler pan, and it would have been embarrassing to even attempt it. Our ingenuity did not fail us, though. The hubcaps could still be used, and there was some old linoleum that Mom had torn up from the living room floor. Nate and I used it, and its slick surface worked well - until it shredded on the way down the hill, leaving nothing but a scrap beneath our bums. Because you see, no sled or other downhill transport could ever be as durable as that cobbler pan. And we treated the poor thing roughly; each good hard snowfall, it got a few more dents in its bottom. And yet come summer it was again receiving and heating Mom's beautiful cobbler.

This Christmas, I wish I had that cobbler pan to hold in my hands again and marvel at the mere fact that there used to be a time when I could comfortably fit my rear end into it while racing flat-out down a slope. Then I'd like to hang it on the wall in my kitchen.

My friends might say, "Hillary, why do you keep that old pan hanging there?"

And I'd look up proudly and get a little misty-eyed as I replied, "There was a big hill in the field where I grew up. It'd snow sometimes, and that pan was just right...."

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