Mr. Turtle pokes his head up through the wild strawberry leaves. He looks around, blinks in the sunshine a few times then disappears into berry heaven for another helping of the luscious little berries. Yard turtle's arrival signals that summer is officially here. He lingers and lounges waiting, as we do to nosh on other juicy fruits of summer.
In my early days at Frog Hollow Farm in southeastern Ohio, I yearned to nibble on those wild strawberries. However, my no-nonsense granny thought otherwise. I swear she could read my mind. "Stay away from those snake berries," she'd warn. "You don't want to get snake bit." My granny knew her snakes and took no prisoners. In a flash, she'd hatchet chop the head off any hapless snake slithering too close to the back porch.
My granddaddy, on the other hand, was my fun-loving storytelling buddy. He and I gathered the forbidden wild strawberries in a small galvanized bucket. We'd hike across Frog Hollow Farm to a distant pasture and hang the little berry laden bucket on a fencepost for the farm elves -not to be confused with the shoemaking elves. He told me that berry-fed elves happily helped him on the farm.
We feasted as we picked the "real" cultivated garden strawberries. Soon the blazing mid-summer sun ripened the luscious blackberries and raspberries. It seemed that we didn't worry about snakes, hissing turtles or sunburned noses as we made our way through the prickly brambles into the wild berry patches. In retrospect I understand why my granddaddy carried his "poking stick." On their annual summer visit, "the Michigan cousins," as my granddaddy called them, brought tubs of plump blueberries. If there were such a place a berry heaven, Frog Hollow Farm was it.
Fortunately, my children and grandchildren have experienced berry picking. Sadly, the same kids that are surprised to see feathery tops on carrots may also assume the origin of berries is plastic boxes or bags on the freezer aisle. Berry picking with kids is a time of discovery and adventure. Maybe you can find a local pick-it-yourself berry patch. If asked, sometimes farmers who sell berries at their farm stands will let the kids see the berries growing even if they can't pick them.
On hot summer afternoons settle in with the kids, a bowl of fresh berries and a berry good book. There are some fine older read-aloud books of berries in the library. Robert McClosky's "Blueberries for Sal" (Viking Press, 1976) is a blueberry picking adventure in the Maine woods with berries and bears. The ever-popular and often-reprinted "Bread and Jam for Frances" ( HarperCollins, 2008) by Russell Hoban features Frances the little bear who is a picky eater. She only wants bread and jam. That's what her mother serves her until ...Yes, there can be too much of a good thing even in the world of make-believe.
John Vernon and Janet Burroway wrote the tongue-in-cheek book, "The Giant Jam Sandwich" (Sandpiper Books, 1987). The gentle residents in the village of Itching Down are plagued with swarms of wasps. To remedy the situation, they bake a huge loaf of bread, make jam and prepare a giant jam sandwich which catches the wasps.
My personal berry favorite book to read aloud is "Jamberry" by Bruce Degen (HarperCollins, 1985). It is a rhyming tour of all kinds of berries. As the beautifully illustrated book progresses, the rhythmic momentum builds. "One berry, two berry, pick me a blue berry" to "raspberry, jazzberry, razzamatazberry."
After tasting, reading and talking about berries, you and the kids might want to indulge in berry goodness. What could be easier than dipping strawberries in powdered sugar to have with homemade lemonade? A berry smoothie is another quick treat. Load berries, bananas, yogurt a little bit of fruit juice and ice in a blender and whirl until it is a smoothie.
Since many stories involve jam, why not make jam with the kids? This takes a little while, but once you and the kids have tasted homemade jam, you will be "jamming" again and again.
I am not talking about the long process with canning jars and lots of hot stove work. This is jam on demand.
Put 4 cups of any type of berries in a large kettle. Don't hesitate to mix assorted berries. You can even fill in with frozen berries if you don't have a quart. Spread out the newspaper on the table or floor, give the kids potato mashers and let them crush the berries in the kettle. Messy? Certainly! However, the enthusiasm and memories outweigh the mess. Measure and add 3 cups of sugar. Add 1 cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon. They stir and stir the berry-sugar mix with a wooden spoon. Now it is your turn.
Heat the mixture to just the bubbling stage and reduce the heat. Stir and stir. The jam will thicken as it cooks. It will be finished when you lift the spoon and the mixture clings rather than drips off the spoon. It will continue to thicken when chilled.
Your jam on demand will cook down to about 2 1/2 cups. Store in a container and refrigerate.
You can put a little "bam" - as Emeril would say -in your jam by turning it into a great dessert. Actually, it is a store or freeze razzmatazzberry bar cookie my granny made. First make the bottom crust and topping mix with 3/4 cup butter and 1 cup brown sugar then blend in1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/3 teaspoon soda and 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour. Stir in 11/2 cups old-fashioned oats. Press half the mixture into a greased 9- by 13-inch baking pan. Spread 1 to 1 1/2 cups of jam on the mixture. Sprinkle the remaining mixture on top. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes or until the edges begin to brown and the top is a lightly browned. Cool, then cut into bars.
Heidi Maness Hartwiger, a Wheeling native, is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She is the author of two books, "All Join Hands: The Forgotten Art of Playing With Children" and "A Gift of Herbs." She is a mother of four and a grandmother of five.