Friday, June 24, 2011

Huckleberry Finn or Just Huckleberries


When about eight years old the wonders of huckleberries came into my life. These were small red ones found near my uncle’s farm in Washington. My cousins and I would spend half the day picking, fifteen minutes eating and the rest of the day in the swimming hole. Once in a while some would make it home and Aunt Jean would bake the most marvelous huckleberry pie my memory can imagine. If you’re my age and lucky you can remember those heavy, light brown short crusted pies dusted with sugar that were ever so flaky and oozed heavy with fruit and sauce. They were starched enough to run thick while hot but stay there when cold so you could eat a slice out of hand.

Huckleberries were a part of our summers along with rabbit hunting, muskrat trapping and red bob fishing. Then came moving away and growing up. Huckleberries faded in memory but the fleeting thought always drew a wide contented smile. Years later my youngest son was twelve and I had a job in Glacier National Park and huckleberries rushed back into my life. Passing through Hungry Horse Montana I spied a tourist trap called Huckleberry Patch and just had to introduce my family to these fond childhood huckleberry memories. So we stopped and ate wonderful huckleberry pie made by Erna Fortin topped with huckleberry ice cream. To my surprise these wonderful berries were dark purple almost black not the bright red I remembered but the taste was as memory had it. Later in the season buckets in hand my son and I braved the grizzlies to steal some of their most treasured fare. With our gold in hand we sat under a larch and ate until we were two happy purple beings. Pies and jam had to wait until later harvesting adventures.





Unlike their cousin’s blueberries, huckleberries are truly wild. Universities in Montana, Washington, Idaho and Colorado have not been able to tame them and bring them under cultivation. Nor are huckleberries flavor similar to blueberries. Blueberries are more insipid while the huckleberry will scream at your palate of its delicious presence. Berries can be found in most of the northwestern states and vary in color from red to almost black, dark purple being the most prized and sought after. Harvesting either for fun or business is done by hand. Prized huckleberry patch locations are guarded family secrets and visited year after year between June and August. A good commercial harvester can pick about a gallon of berries an hour and at $30 to $40 per gallon can realize a good income. Some years are not as good as others and the harvest can be slim pickings at times.




Evidence has been found the huckleberry actually got its name from a simple mistake. Early American colonist, upon encountering the Native American berry, misidentified it as the European blueberry known as the “hurtleberry,” by which name it was called until around 1670 it was corrupted to become know as the “huckleberry.”

The early used expression “I’ll be your Huckleberry” means just the right person for a given job, and it also means a mark of affection or comradeship to one’s partner or sidekick.

Later, the term came to mean somebody inconsequential. Mark Twain borrowed aspects of this meaning to name his famous character, Huckleberry Finn. His idea, as he told an interviewer in 1895, was to establish that he was a boy “of lower extraction or degree” than Tom Sawyer.

The huckleberry is a main food source for a wide range of animals including the deer, birds, rodents, insects, and the most well-known – black and grizzly bears. Huckleberries are one of the grizzly bear’s favorite foods, consisting of up to 1/3 of their sustenance. Bears often travel great distances to find them, as the berries are one of their major later summer and fall foods. If you do go huckleberry picking, be aware that you may be in some bear’s favorite patch.

Huckleberries have been a staple of life for Northwest and Rocky Mountain Native American tribes for thousands of years. In the Journals of Lewis and Clark, they wrote of the tribes west of the Rocky Mountains using dried berries extensively in 1806.
Northwest tribes made special combs of wood or salmon backbones to strip huckleberries off the bushes. They dried the berries in the sun or smoked them and then mashed them into cakes and wrapped these in leaves or bark for storage.

There are special areas in western Montana that are notorious for huckleberries and have the reputation for producing more berries than any other area.
Between 1900 to 1925 families took working vacations where they traveled into the mountains to pick huckleberry (known as hucks) for the winter. During the 1930s through the 1940s, large camps were set in northern Montana where the fire of 1910 had burned. NOTE: Forest fires can enhance huckleberry habitat by allowing more light onto the forest floor. Also, fires release more nutrients into the soil, producing ashy soils upon which huckleberries thrive. The picking was so great that much of western Montana’s population converged on this area and set up huckleberry camps. The Native Americans on one side of the road, with as many as five hundred tipi lodges, and on the other side of the road would be the encampments of other Montanans. The camps might last a few days, a week, or as much as two months, depending on the crop and the inclinations of the family. It was said the big huckleberry camps had a boomtown atmosphere, much like the gold mining towns of the West. Those years produced boxcar-loads of huckleberries.
Huckleberry outings not only provided settlers with easily available nutritious, but also offered young people a legitimate courting opportunity. Moreover, huckleberry gathering provided a unique opportunity for white settlers to interact with local tribes.






The huckleberry has achieved something of a cult following in Montana and some communities even have huckleberry festivals every year. The small northwestern Montana town of Trout Creek has held a Huckleberry Festival for the last 30 years. Trout Creek is the official “Huckleberry Capital of Montana” and home to the premier huckleberry festival in the inland Northwest. Trout Creek was named the official huckleberry capital of Montana in the 1980s. The “Great Burn,” the legendary fire of 1910, scoured much of this region and left prime huckleberry habitat in its wake. Like other shrubs and underbrush, berry bushes thrive when sections of the forest canopy fall to fire or other forces.

Creative chefs have used huckleberries to express northwest cooking not only in pies and jams but game meat and bbq sauces, chutneys, salsas, candies, relishes, cakes and breads to name the most common. Frozen huckleberries can be purchased from some wild game suppliers and found through the internet. Jams, sauces and other canned forms of the berries are also available through sources on the internet.

If any chef wants to add “wild” to a creation try huckleberries. For me, it’s huckleberry pie for Thanksgiving and a happy Thanksgiving to you all.

A Social History of Wild Huckleberry Harvesting in the Pacific Northwest, by Rebecca T. Richard and Susan J. Alexander, Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-657. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station,


Post a Comment

<< Home