Maine, Oregon... maybe Washington State. Who knew we also grew blueberries in the Eastern portion of the Volunteer state?
I did, after I took three young teens to a pick-your-own blueberry farm on the Fourth of July about four years ago. I remember they were good little blueberries, though the proprietress told me they would get a little sweeter and plumper as the season wore into mid-August. I remember only my older daughter was proficient at picking, something to do with being left-handed, I thought. While the rest of us ate one, picked one, paused in the shade, she would denude half a bush. I remember expecting strawberry-size plants and getting full-grown bushes a little taller than I am.
And last summer, I finally remembered to call them back and see if we could come again. Bad news. That freeze we had last spring, it wiped out the entire crop.
This year, though, good news. The blueberries are back. The bushes can freeze one year and still produce the next, which is what they're doing at several local growers, including Clift Orchard in Strawberry Plains.
The co-managing operator, Jeremy Clift, told me they've had bushes about eight years now, originally managed by his great uncle, and, when he died, now by Jeremy and his brother Jamie Clift. "The berries came in a little late this year, so we should have them for at least a couple more weeks," he says.
Like me, Jeremy says he mostly eats blueberries out of hand. "I've heard that they're really great for you, help your memory and all kinds of stuff like that," he says.
Not that Jeremy needs help with his memory, except maybe for tests—operational manager he may be, but he's just 16, a junior at Carter High School, and Jamie is a year younger.
Jeremy doesn't have any blueberry recipes to share, but he does have a grandmother—his Mamaw, he says—who makes great blueberry pancakes.
Now we're getting somewhere! Mamaw turns out to be Carolyn Clift, mother of Philip Clift, the yoga instructor who used to work at Well By Nature and is now moving to the Glowing Body when it opens. She's from Grainger county originally, but has lived in Strawberry Plains 50 years now so that's probably all that counts.
She's willing to talk recipes, but scoffs at the simplicity of what she has to say. "What I do I just use Aunt Jemima Buttermilk Complete," she says. "I always use the fresh blueberries, which we pick daily. I just throw them in there—I'm very generous with them. I would use two cups full for four servings, but you could probably go with just one cup."
Turns out it's not the ingredients that produce her triumphant blueberry pancakes, it's her technique that yields crumbly hot cakes with steamy, sweet blueberry essence issuing forth.
"The blueberries burst when you use your spatula—the flavor is intermingled with the pancakes," she adds. "You push down with the spatula after you flip the pancake so the blueberries spread... that's the whole idea."
Her other preferences include a cast-iron skillet, which you heat on medium before adding a little oil—she favors canola. "Heat it until it kind of pops," she says.
Then you pour the batter, flipping and spatula-mashing when you see bubbles forming.
And we top it all off with some blueberry syrup?
Oh, no, never that. Mrs. Clift halts me right there. "Maple syrup—the real kind, not the imitation. I just had some, by the way."
She's right, you know. A couple days later, I follow her directions to the letter and I've got blueberry pancakes of my own.
And I agree with Jeremy. They're the best I've ever had.