If New Jersey were a fruit, it would absolutely be the blueberry. Sure, the highbush blueberry is technically New Jersey’s state fruit, but aside from The Garden State being the birthplace of one of America’s favorite berries, the blueberry has a very Jersey Fresh attitude. Just like New Jersey, the blueberry is small but mighty, tart but sweet, and thrives in an environment that is downright oppressive to other crops.
Blueberries can be found throughout North America and before the early 1900’s they were pretty much only found in the wild. Wild blueberries were abundant but the tiny, seed-filled berries weren’t consistent enough to be a viable commercial crop. Even the most entrepreneurial of farmers didn’t want to take on the task of taming the wild blueberry, except for an unlikely farmer in an unlikely place: Elizabeth White of Browns Mills, New Jersey.
Browns Mills is in the heart of the Pine Barrens, a place deemed “barren” because it’s an environment that’s not suitable to conventional European farming. The Pine Barrens is a 1.1 million acre forest of pine trees sustained by sandy soil and the Kirkwood–Cohansey aquifer that runs underneath. The pine needles that fall to the forest floor create a fertilizer that’s way too acidic for most plants. Pair that with porous sandy soil and you’ve got an ecosystem that can be challenging to work with. But regardless of the challenges, there are plenty of farmers who, for generations, have worked the land, leveraging it’s bizarre terroir.
Around the time of the Civil War, farmers realized that the brutal nature of the Pine Barrens was actually conducive to cranberries. They preferred the acidic soil and with the aquifer only a few feet beneath the sand, it made for a natural irrigation system which came in handy when farmers needed to flood the bogs come harvest time. For about 60 years, cranberries were the crowning glory of the Pine Barrens, that is until the early 1900’s when Elizabeth White proposed that farmers should consider the blueberry.
White and her family were cranberry farmers, like almost everyone else in the Pine Barrens, cultivating a plot of land that’s now called Whitesbog Preservation Trust. When White presented her idea to cultivate blueberries for commercial purposes, farmers throughout the Pine Barrens thought that White was crazy. But the backlash and the lack of confidence from her community didn’t stop her from attempting to domesticate the wild blueberry.
In 1908, White wrote a letter to USDA botanist Frederick Coville who joined her on her seemingly impossible quest to develop a commercial blueberry. It took several years, but by 1912 the duo developed the highbush blueberry, a taller bush bursting with multiple yields of plump blueberries.
The story of the blueberry captures the spirit of New Jersey. It’s the story of an underrated crop that no one believed in, cultivated by a defiant farmer who stubbornly went against the odds. White saw in blueberries what other farmers didn’t: the mighty blueberry’s potential. And in a very Jersey Girl manner, White set out to do something she was told couldn’t be done. If that ain’t the most Jersey Fresh attitude ever, I don’t know what is!
In a lot of ways, I feel like the blueberry. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the Pine Barrens, specifically in Browns Mills where my father’s family came from. I grew up picking blueberries just like my great grandmother, whose family survived the Great Depression by working at local blueberry farms. Come summer time we’d go out into the fields of a nearby farm and pluck grape-sized blueberries from tall bushes filled with brown recluse spiders and chiggers. But it was all worth it to come home with pounds of blueberries from which we’d make blueberry jams, syrups, tea cakes, dumplings and more, and whatever we didn’t use we’d freeze to enjoy long after blueberry season was over.
Over the years as a food writer, I’ve worked with blueberries and every time I think I’ve said everything there is to say about this bodacious berry, a new recipe, a new perspective, a new factoid pops up that surprises me. So, here’s a compilation of some of my favorite blueberry projects I’ve gotten to work on over the years!
WATCH: Blueberry and Whipped Mascarpone Icebox Cake
Since this Blueberry and Whipped Mascarpone Icebox Cake was one of my favorite recipes from last summer, I teamed up with Philadelphia-based video producer Maggie Bues to do this video! Learn step by step how to make this easy, no-bake cake! You can also check out the recipe here on my website!
Easy Blueberry and Lemon Jam Recipe
Canning is planning — planning for the months ahead when our favorite fruits and vegetables aren’t in season. It’s extending our bounty, making sure the foods we love carry us through the winter months. After a long day of blueberry picking my grandmother and great-grandmother would show my mom and I how to make and can our own blueberry jam — four generations in one kitchen laughing about summers past. Then we’d hang out in the living room and get excited every time we heard a seal pop!
Last summer, because of the pandemic, I canned blueberries alone for my first time. It was very intimidating, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought.
How the New Jersey Pine Barrens became the world's blueberry capital
New Jersey has a complex that is complex. Sprawled across a bridge in the state’s capital is a large neon sign that reads like a snarky un-welcome doormat: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.” The slogan originally reflected Trenton’s economic power as a manufacturing city in the early 1900s. But nowadays, it perfectly sums up New Jersey’s attitude as a whole – that aside from giving America an easy punchline, we give a lot to the world with no recognition from outsiders. And one of New Jersey’s greatest gifts is the modern blueberry.
Blueberry Dumplings Recipe
I know this was in last week’s newsletter, but for real, it deserves to be included in my blueberry compilation. It’s very easy to make and is a fun baking recipe to do with your kids!
Very Berry Frozen Yogurt Bark
When I partnered with ALDI last month, the recipe that got the most hype during every segment across the nation was my Very Berry Frozen Yogurt Bark. It’s the perfectly creamy, sweet, and cold summer time treat that is relatively healthy (it’s made with fruit, nuts, Greek yogurt, and sweetened with honey and vanilla extract) and it’s incredibly easy to make.
Blue Hues: Natural Ways to Turn Food Blue
Nature is bursting with color, but one of the rarest hues is blue. That’s because the chemical responsible for blue pigmentation is a bit more rare than other foods. Most of the produce aisle is full of green foods thanks to chlorophyll, and carotenoids are the phytonutrients responsible for giving carrots, yellow squash, apricots and other foods their lively yellows and oranges. But reds, purples, and blues come from anthocyanin, a pigment that’s less stable than the ones previously mentioned. Even when anthocyanins are present, they mostly express themselves as purple or red, and not so much blue.