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Savoring blackberries from Panther Swamp
I grew up a few hundred feet from a swamp, specifically, from Panther Swamp. Our home was on St. Joe Beach, just off Georgia Avenue, and when we moved there in 1978, no one lived on the swamp side of Georgia. It was simply trees, underbrush, palmettos, endless huckleberry vines, and lots of wild creatures.
We slept with our windows open as much of the year as we could, so I grew up with swamp sounds as my lullaby each night as I drifted off to sleep. The friendly sounds of the tree frogs, chirping and trilling away the night, were my favorite. But there were endless insect sounds, reptile sounds, and, if you asked any local kids, the occasional female-like scream of a Florida panther. The thought of that one wasn’t quite as calming, to be honest, but thankfully I never actually heard it.
The children in our neighborhood played carefully along the edges of the swamp. We knew there was an abundance of snakes there, but the call of the shiny black huckleberries was too strong to resist. So we would take a bucket with us to the side of the road, and begin plucking the fat, juicy berries, one by one, keeping an eye out for any sneaky snakes that may creep up on us, not knowing that our presence there had surely sent them slithering away.
We’d take the buckets of still-warm berries home to our mothers, who would bake them into cobblers, muffins, or jams. I even remember mom making a pancake syrup once when I brought home too small an amount to bake with. It was delicious on a Saturday morning with her fluffy pancakes or waffles from her stainless steel waffle iron.
Years passed, and people started clearing the lots along Georgia Avenue on the swamp side. The neighbors looked at each other and said, “don’t they know there’ll be a constant battle against snakes in their yards?” as if we, a few hundred feet away, didn’t deal with that ourselves. More times than I like to remember, actually, we had to get rid of snakes from our property. I still shudder to remember it.
Later still, my family rented a home in the Barefoot Cottages subdivision when we all descended upon dad for a visit. My sister, Sherrin, and I most enjoyed the screened porches the home boasted. We spent hours out there, rocking in chairs and listening. You see, those swampy sounds still exist in the land behind the cottages, at least until more homes are built there. The sounds were completely familiar; the frogs, the crickets, the dragonflies, the birds, the reptiles and more. We sat in the dark, sipping on iced tea and talking about growing up near Panther Swamp as we enjoyed the swampy symphony of home.
If you have some blackberries stashed away from your summer picking, please pull them out of the freezer and make something today; perhaps this cobbler will satisfy you. And if you do, please slip outside for a while to enjoy the flavor of those berries as you savor the sounds of home.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home. She is married and has three young adult sons who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at www.whatsouthernfolkseat.com.