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Harvest the delights of the modest blueberry

By A. LaBan

JULY 5, 1999:  Feeling blue lately? No surprise, as July is National Blueberry Month and peak picking time for the approximately 330 million pounds of blueberries annually shipped from farms to tables around the world.

Botanists believe blueberries have been growing wild in North America for more than 13,000 years. The Pilgrims who survived the winter of 1620 did so with the help of the Wampanoag Indians, who taught the settlers new skills that helped them survive - including how to plant corn and how to gather, use and store native plants like blueberries to supplement their food supply. The Indians also taught the Pilgrims how to make sautauthig, a simple pudding made with dried and crushed blueberries, dried and cracked corn, honey and water. (The settlers later added milk, butter and sugar.) Many historians believe sautauthig was served at the first Thanksgiving feast.

The Northeast Indian tribes revered blueberries, and folklore developed around the fruit. The calyx, the blossom end of each berry, forms the shape of a perfect five-pointed star. Children would be told stories of how the Great Spirit sent "star berries" to relieve hunger during a famine. Dried blueberries were added to stews and soups, and were crushed into a powder and rubbed into meat for flavor. Parts of the blueberry plant were also used as medicine. A tea made from the leaves of the plant was thought to purify blood and was used to help women relax during childbirth, while blueberry juice was used to soothe coughs.

The Indians were apparently on to something. Blueberries get their blueness from anthocyanin, a pigment that imparts colors from deep blue to red. Anthocyanins may help to prevent cancer and slow the negative effects of aging on cognitive and motor functions. High in fiber and vitamin C, blueberries were named 1999's Fruit of the Year by Eating Well Magazine.

Ninety percent of the world's blueberries are grown in North America. Harvests run from mid-April in the Southern states through early October in northern Canada, peaking in July. Approximately 40 percent of that harvest is grown in the Midwest, primarily Michigan and Indiana. Blueberries grow in two varieties, lowbush and highbush. The lowbush variety still grows wild in Maine and eastern Canada; although sweeter, these berries are smaller, more fragile, and must be harvested by hand. Most of the lowbush crop is used for baked goods and processed foods.

The highbush variety, which grows up to 15 feet tall, has been domesticated and improved to produce the big blue berries we typically see in stores. Approximately one-half of the cultivated highbush berries are sold fresh, while the rest are frozen, dried, canned and processed for food production.

Besides sautauthig, you can find blueberries in some oddly named culinary traditions. Blueberry grunt is a biscuit-covered dessert that's prepared in a skillet, which starts to "grunt" when the skillet is covered. Blueberry buckle is a coffee cake with lots of blueberries and a streusel topping, while blueberry mush is a steamed pudding based on a traditional English duff. And then there's blueberry flummery, created by the Shakers as a soft, sweet dessert for toothless elders.

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