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Saturday, August 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Personal Foodstory: Tart, sweet and wild, huckleberries represent this family of foraging jokesters

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 9, 2017, 10:46 a.m.

Elissa Ball

My mom’s side of the family is full of practical jokers: big-hearted goofballs who live for April Fool’s Day pranks and weird wordplay. The reigning court jester is my grandpa, who I named “Papa” when I was an infant.

Papa’s wit is so quick it’s startling. The 90-something comedian’s wry one-liners and sudden punchlines stop you in your tracks. I recently stepped into to my grandparents’ house to find Papa smoothing out soggy dollar bills on the living room coffee table. “Papa, what are you doing?” I asked. With a sly sparkle in his eye, he looked up from his wet cash and replied, “I’m laundering money!” Nana poked her head in from the kitchen to confirm that, yes, Papa’s wallet accidentally went through the wash.

Well aware of my family’s trickster tendencies, naturally I was suspicious when my mom called me one evening “just to check” if I had a chance to view the huckleberry photos she emailed me. Mom and Papa were picking huckleberries in the woods of North Idaho, near the family cabin Papa built in the 1970s. (Papa’s the kind of restless creative type who casually teaches himself how to build homes … and violins and foosball tables.) She wanted to show off their berry bounty digitally since I couldn’t be there to help them gather.

I opened Mom’s email to find a photo of the dad-and-daughter picking team. They were grinning on the cabin couch, a 5-gallon bucket situated between them. The tall bucket was so big it included one of those grim “Children can fall into bucket and drown” warning labels. A mound of dark-purple, freshly washed huckleberries glistened regally at the top of the bucket. I tilted my head at the picture like a bloodhound sniffing for clues.

If you’ve ever been huckleberry picking, you know that to reach even the half-gallon mark takes approximately an eternity. Because huckleberries can’t be cultivated on farms or in gardens (their stubborn wildness makes me respect the fruit even more), you have to truly forage to find them.

Huckleberrying requires patience, grit and awkward crouching. Swatting mosquitos and sweating in the summer heat, you must crawl through mountainous underbrush as scraggly branches and sticky spider webs collide with your face, only to pluck four meager berries from an entire bush.

With stained fingers and dirty jeans, you remind yourself that: Every. Berry. Counts.

If you drop one berry, you desperately hunt it down and place the precious fruit back in your picking container. Otherwise your hard labor was wasted.

For hands-free convenience, my family has always used old plastic milk jugs with their tops cut off and a rope threaded through the jug handle to tie to our waists.

Over the phone, I told Mom I was indeed looking at the huckleberry photos on my laptop. Then I gasped, realizing I’d been duped. “You liars!” I exclaimed. “Did you put … Saran Wrap over that bucket to trick me?”

She chuckled and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We had really good luck this year.” Then she shouted to Papa in the next room: “Dad! Elissa wants to know if we used Saran Wrap!” I could hear him laugh and yell something clever. They live for this stuff.

The huckleberry is tart yet sweet. That’s how the joking goes in my family, too. Even if the tricks we play on each other cause groans or eye rolls, they’re never mean-spirited or dangerous. We tease to show affection, we poke fun because we care about the other person and trust they’ll understand our intentions.

Gently trolling loved ones takes time and skill. You have to know what makes people tick, and what ticks them off. Because Papa knows I despise raw onions, in summer months he’ll sneak out to the garden when I visit for dinner just to harvest a Walla Walla sweet, slice up the pungent vegetable, then dangle three rings of snow-white onion over my salad bowl. “Are you sure you don’t want some of this onion?” he’ll taunt. “It’s freeesh!”

But Papa always finds a way to balance the tart with the sweet. One August when the two of us were driving up dusty mountain roads in search of a promising huckleberry patch, he slowed down the minivan and urgently swerved to the side of the road. With the engine still idling, he popped open his door, plucked something from the tall roadside grass, and turned to me. “This is for you,” he said matter-of-factly, as he handed me a single, gorgeous orange wildflower. I was 20 years old at the time, but I felt like a little girl again, in the best way.

Offering flowers, jokes and food are all ways my Irish-Catholic family shows affection without directly talking about feelings. When one of us has a better huckleberry haul than expected, we freeze the berries and divide them up so we can all enjoy some throughout the year.

Huckleberry pancakes, cobblers and pies are ways we celebrate the forest’s dark jewels (even if we have to pad a recipe with handfuls of blueberries in the event of a disappointing huck harvest). Papa tells me he and his buddies used to make an alcoholic concoction called “huckleberry bounce,” which was basically berry-infused vodka. “We’d have porch parties with that huckleberry bounce,” Papa reminisces, “and by the end of the night people would get pretty wacko.”

We’re pretty wacky ourselves, my family of foraging jokers: unafraid of dirty fingernails and harmless mischief.

Quick and Easy Huckleberry Compote

This recipe goes well with pancakes, waffles, oatmeal and French toast.

About 1 cup fresh or frozen huckleberries

A sprinkling of sugar or drizzle of agave syrup

1/4 teaspoon shredded ginger root (a little goes a long way)

Dash of cinnamon

A few dashes of balsamic or apple cider vinegar (trust me)

A little orange zest (optional)

Quick squeeze of lemon juice

A dusting of arrowroot powder to thicken (cornstarch or agar agar also work)

Combine everything but the thickener in a saucepan and bring to medium heat. Once the fruit is bubbling, reduce heat to low and stir well for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in thickener of your choice.

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