Blueberries for John

Pond
The pond, from which the home was named Pond House. Looking toward the Elizabeths.

“Once at least in the life of every human,” MFK Fisher writes in Serve it Forth, “whether he be brute or trembling daffodil, comes a moment of complete gastronomic satisfaction.”

You can find mine on Page 344 of the Tenth Edition of Fannie Farmer: “Maine Blueberry Pudding.”

~

I have the 1962 reprint of the Tenth Edition of The Fannie Merritt Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which the publisher, Little, Brown, of Boston, Mass., proudly describes on the copyright page was “Completely Revised” before being published in 1959. But the copy I have is annotated, in pencil, as being “From Woods Hole.”

For the Ward family, “Woods Hole” meant “Pond House” – a summer home on Penzance Point in Woods Hole, Mass., a village of Falmouth on the southwestern knuckle of Cape Cod. The house did overlook a pond, then a dune that protected the pond, and then the western entry to the waterway called Woods Hole. The Elizabeth Islands – Uncateena, Nonamesset, Naushon, and so on, down the 14 or 15 miles to Cuttyhunk – begin on the far shore.

Pond House became the Ward summer home in 1938 – the very year of the furious hurricane that arrived almost unannounced in September and raged toward Canada, killing nearly 700 people and wrecking tens of thousands of boats and homes from Long Island through Vermont. Pond House survived, possibly because a rowboat crashed through the dining room windows on the Buzzards Bay side of the house and then exited via the kitchen on the opposite side of the house, allowing the sea to flow freely through. For all of my life, the dining room was decorated with painted waves that commemorated the depth the storm water reached inside the house.

If the Pond House kitchen had a copy of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook as the rowboat floated through toward the backyard, it could have been the Sixth Edition, which was published in 1936 and was a bit daunting at 838 pages. There is a solid chance that among those thousands of recipes and variants, many of them anchored in 19th century New England, was my Maine Blueberry Pudding. I expect the simple dessert dates back well before the Sixth Edition.

Perhaps the truest description of this transcendent blueberry dessert (or breakfast, if the truth be told) is as a bread pudding; it uses buttered bread as a base. For the sake of historical comparison, there are elements of it that resemble the simmered flummery (such as the cream adornment) and others that follow something of the model of a hearth-baked grunt – but it is neither entirely. It is unique, and it is wild and self-reliant in the sense that a good deal of its beauty arrives on the shoulders of New England’s wild blueberry. The rest of its charm rises from its honesty. In an era of glitzy, tricked-out cupcakes and store-bought puff pastry kits, this dessert is New World rustic, radiant in its sack cloth simplicity – chewy and luscious and rewarding in its plainness.

And here is how delightfully simple it really is to stage:

Toss 3 cups of rinsed wild blueberries into a nonreactive pot, add ¾ cup of sugar and half a cup of water, and cook for 10 minutes. Butter half a dozen slices of white bread (cinnamon swirl might turn up the volume, but I wouldn’t recognize it as the same dessert). Alternate layers of the bread and berries in a loaf pan, and sprinkle as you go with cinnamon. Chill well – several hours or more. Slice, and most people serve it with heavy cream; I prefer it plain. (My father, who was 12 when the hurricane hit, also warns: Bring a toothbrush, because everything in your mouth will turn royal blue. Keep in mind, he’s an archetypal Ward and thus prone to rhetorical exaggeration.)

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For those of you reading this as it is posted, July and August are the months to harvest wild blueberries in New England, where there are several common types of blueberry available – some of them higher bushes (such as the one that grew far taller than my youngest daughter, outside the back door of her home in Connecticut’s capital city), and some of them lower bushes.

It would have been the lower bushes, hugging the glacier-scoured, wind-polished granite near author Robert McCloskey’s summer home on Scott Island in East Penobscott Bay, Maine, which served as a model for one of McCloskey’s most endearing books, and the only one entirely about the New England wild blueberry.

“One day,” writes McCloskey, “Little Sal went with her mother to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries” – and thus begins Blueberries for Sal, the 1948 volume about young Sally. Her idea of helping her mother collect blueberries is to eat every berry she picks; her mother’s goal is to collect enough of the wild berries to can them for the winter.

There’s nothing in the book to say that Sally’s mother did not have the 1946 edition of Fannie Farmer sitting in her Scott Island kitchen, waiting for their return.

In my copy, the section on canning begins on Page 496.

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