I’m still excited about my huckleberry adventure and the halibut and huckleberry dinner that followed. Two crystal canning jars of garnet jelly wait on the countertop and tempt everyone passing. Jaden asked me three times in two days if he can open a jar. The answer is always the same, “We are saving it for Thanksgiving, or for when I kill something that tastes like chicken.”
Making jelly isn’t the only way to preserve the berries, but it might be the tastiest. I shy away from freezing too many items based on shelf-space. I’m hoping to fill the freezer with a deer or an elk this year. Or maybe I'll copy my hero, Michael Pollan, and kill a wild hog. I saw a booth for Texas wild hog hunts at the Sportsman show this year. It’s probably wishful thinking, but I’m staying positive and keeping a few shelves reserved just in case. Eating in season is always best, but there is only so many huckleberries we can eat in such a short production span. I like to experiment with different methods of keeping food for later enjoyment.
Northwest tribal folk dried huckleberries in large cakes and stacked the cakes until ready to use. I picture great purple wheels, like towers of cheese, stacked to the ceiling in corners of longhouses. When berries where needed, a chunk of a wheel was broken off and reconstituted in water. I’ve also seen recommendations for mashing the berries and spreading them out across a screen to dry in the sun. When the mash is dry, it can be crumbled and sealed in storage containers. I’ll try this option, as I don’t have a free corner to stack cakes of berries. My least favorite preservation discovery is to store the berries in bacon grease or used cooking oil. Yuck! Now that just sounds nasty, but not when considering the huckleberry’s traditional use as fish bait. I never really thought of the huckleberry as fish bait, but it makes perfect sense. It's the exact right bite for a #8 trout hook. I’ve purchased little red eggs packed in small jars to bait my hook, but never caught a single fish with the store bought bait. Maybe it’s time to try something a bit more natural (and free).
Of course I wanted one of those fancy huckleberry picking rakes. I found one on Amazon.com for about $25 with shipping. Amazon has everything. Now $25 won’t break the bank, but I’m skeptical about the purchase in general. I mean, do I really want to fork out cash for an item I will use a couple times this year, put away and then not find or forget about next year? Probably not.
I decided to make my own, or at least try. The first prototype started out as a tall, rectangular container that once held those yummy peanut-butter pretzel pillows you buy at Costco. I save containers like this one, tucking them in back of the pantry for who-knows-what or carting them out to my pottery studio to use for glaze mixing. I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to plastics.
I used a box-cutting knife with razor to cut the bottom out, but only until I almost sank the blade into my thigh, then I resigned to sharp scissors. Scissors work best, providing much more control. I cut one edge of the box lower than the other, and then cut “fringe” or fork tines on the longer edge. The idea was to use the container as a scoop and scoop up a clump of bushes and comb the berries through the tines. It worked kind of okay. I quickly noted to design flaws. 1) My tines were too far apart and I could only collect the largest of the berries. 2) The plastic tines were a little too flexy and sometime the berries would not come off easily and bent back the tines.
I created a second huckleberry rake using a large grape juice bottle. The plastic walls of the bottle were thicker than the pretzel container. I also left very little space between tines. For the test-drive I combed the bushes and gathered about 2 cups of berries in less than 10 minutes. I can pick enough for a pie in about thirty minutes. That’s half the time it took me to pick the last 6 cups (that turned into 4 cups because of Jasper and the boys).
The bottle-rake worked much better than the pretzel-rake. I’m not going to rate it five-stars or anything, but I’d give a 2+, maybe a 3. My rake is certainly not as pretty as the bright red commercial rake from Amazon.com. I admit to having a bit of rake-envy, but I’ll get over it. The bottle rake cost nothing to make. It’s light and easy to use. Best of all, I don’t have to store it in the already crowded garage until next season, and I don’t have to remember where I stored the thing. It’s basically a disposable tool. So all in all, I’m happy with my rake, but I do have my eye on a nearly empty, blue jug of laundry detergent. That ought to make a real nice rake...