- Ian Thompson
Hvsh Bissa (Blackberry Month)
We're currently in the height of Blackberry Month in the Choctaw calendar. This image is of some blackberries picked yesterday at the Nan Awaya Heritage Farmstead sitting in a vessel made from clay that was dug and fired at the Farmstead. The composition pays homage to our Choctaw ancestors' connection with this important plant.
2018 seems to be a particularly good year for blackberries in our area. Not only are they abundant, but they are particularly large and sweet-flavored. The fruits are especially prolific in the areas where we've mowed paths through the old blackberry thickets on the land, as a part of our fencing projects over the last year. Maybe the sun helps them to produce more fruit.
Yesterday, as Ian was working on clearing a path for a new fence, Amy took the opportunity to gather a good-sized bag of some of this year's blackberry crop. Gathering wild blackberries is a great activity, but two words of caution. First, humans are not the only creatures that can relish these tasty June gems. Rodents forage for blackberries under the thorny vines where they have fallen. As the rodents stalk the fallen blackberries, snakes, some of them poisonous, are stalking the rodents. If you're going to be picking in an area where you can't see your feet, snake guards are recommended. These guards have the benefit of protecting the lower legs from the bite of sharp blackberry thorns as well. Second, southern blackberry thickets are the realm of the dreaded shokomo, the "chigger" in English.
In our area, and probably about everywhere else, most of the wild blackberries that get picked go into making jelly. While this is one way to preserve this June flavor and to help it go farther so that it can be enjoyed throughout the year, most jelly recipes include tons of sugar. To us, it seems like a bit of a shame to transform this naturally healthy food into a contributor to diabetes. As an alternative, we can recommend the following Indigenous recipe for walakshi. It was recorded by Choctaw elders a century ago, and we have experimented with quite a bit over the last few years:
Wash and clean the berries. Then, put them in a pot of water to boil. Parch several hand fulls of dried, white flour corn kernels. A wide clay bowl on a bed of hot coals is perfect, or you can do it in a skillet on the stove. For the latter option, be prepared for this process to make some smoke. Grind the parched corn kernels, either in a kiti (a Choctaw mortar and pestle), or a food processor. To make it richer, you can add in some unsalted sunflower seeds as the corn is being pulverized. Next, take some of the boiling blackberry juice and add it to the parched corn meal. If you're using a kiti, just pour the juice right in and then pound in with the kitvpi (pestle). This action easily kneads the hot mixture into a dough. Alternatively, you can mix the dough and boiling juice together in a metal bowl. The lavender-colored blackberry/corn dough is tasty and sustaining all by itself. To make the walakshi, form small dumplings by hand and drop them into the boiling blackberry juice. Boil for about 20 minutes. During this process, the cornmeal will help to thicken the juice.
This traditional walakshi is fruity, savory, and filling. Unlike modern walakshi recipes, made of white flour, juice concentrate, and tons of sugar, it is easy on the body and supports our Indigenous relationship with the land. If you have some blackberries or other native fruits on hand this year, try it, you might like it. We really do.