Quick, name your favorite jam or jelly.
Strawberry, check. Raspberry, right. Grape, apple, peach, cherry, got ’em. Orange marmalade, yep.
Did anybody mention chokecherry?
When I was young, my mother put up dozens of quart jars of chokecherry jelly every summer. It was, in fact, about the only condiment available in our farm home to spread on breakfast toast or pancakes, or the peanut butter sandwiches she packed in our lunch pails. We’re talking hand-picked, home-prepared, homemade jelly put up in quart canning jars and stored in the basement.
Each August, my mother would drag me along as she headed out to her favorite thickets to pick buckets full of the purplish-black berries. Chokecherry pickers, like mushroom hunters, have their favorite hunting grounds, and my mother instinctively knew where the best bushes could be found.
We found them growing in ravines and gulches and creek beds, sometimes along a county roadside where some settler had transplanted them into hedgerows. The big clusters of ripe berries looked delicious, and at least once or twice I couldn’t resist popping a few into my mouth. Which, of course, made my cheeks and lips pucker up like a deflated balloon. Chokecherries contain an astringent agent, which is a $10 word meaning “yech.”
I also discovered early on that chokecherry bushes are infested with chiggers, which, I believe, are tiny little space aliens armed with tasers. Chigger bites itch fiercely for ... oh, about a year or two ... at which point the victims begin to entertain thoughts of amputation.
Somehow, though, through the process of boiling the berries in water, straining out the pits, and adding a ton of sugar, my mother turned the wild harvest into Mason jars filled with tasty jelly.
You may have chokecherries growing wild in your own backyard. Botanists say they can be found across the northern plains and in the southern half of the United States, all the way from Georgia through Arizona and New Mexico. Long before the arrival of the first European settlers, Native Americans pounded chokecherries, pits and all, into a mixture of buffalo meat and fat to make pemmican, which they dried in the sun to make sort of an Indian version of jerky. I’m thinking that biting down on the pits may have led to some terrific dentist bills.
According to journals kept by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the explorers sampled some of the wild berries that the Mandan Indians harvested along the Missouri River. At which point the adventurers made a wry face and said, “Wow, that’ll pucker yer gizzard. Maybe we ought to soak these things in whiskey first.”
During the 1800s and early 1900s, when settlers found there weren’t many convenience stores or supermarkets on the American frontier, they decided to give chokecherries a try. Before long, nearly every homesteader’s wife was putting up Mason jars filled with chokecherry jelly. And sending their children off to the local schoolhouse with chokecherry jelly sandwiches.
Chokecherry aficionados claim they use the berries to make wine, baked goods, fruit leather, even candy. While I’m guessing that fewer folks harvest and eat chokecherries today than they did a century ago, there are still places where chokecherries are king. In North Dakota, where the chokecherry is the official state fruit, some entrepreneurs produce and sell chokecherry butter, honey, fudge, barbeque sauce and even chokecherry hand lotion. And in Lewiston, Montana, the annual Montana State Chokecherry Festival is held every September. The event includes a pancake breakfast served with chokecherry syrup, vendors selling chokecherry jams and jellies, muffins, wine, pies, and breads. And, of course, a chokecherry pit-spitting contest. Those folks in Lewiston sure know how to have fun!
It’s been more than 40 years since the last time I tasted chokecherry jelly. Now that I think about it, I kinda miss the taste.
Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet from Parkville, Missouri, who hopes a jar of chokecherry jelly appears on his kitchen counter one of these days.