Huckleberries are a prime ingredient on many of Priest Lake, Idaho’s popular menu items, ranging from pancakes, pies, to drinks such as the absolutely delicious (and especially intoxicating) Huckleberry Daiquiri.
Ambrosia, according to one legend, was said to be the “food of the gods.” Anyone who’s ever tasted this fusion of oranges, bananas, pineapple, mini marshmallows and lots of coconut—drenched in orange liqueur —would probably agree its taste was certainly celestial.
In the Pacific Northwest, especially in the Idaho Panhandle in a place known as “God’s Country” there are those who’d challenge that title since they believe the food of the gods grows in the hills surrounding their Panhandle community. Up that-away, anything containing huckleberries qualifies as “food for the gods.”
The most essential pieces of equipment for that inaugural afternoon outing of picking the plump, purple berries included a wide, worn leather belt and a modified coffee can to which a metal handle had been attached. The objective: to fill it up to the brim
Anyone who’s ever gone berrying will attest at least a third of the tiny purple globules leave their telltale stains on mouths and fingers. Some berries made it into the can—at least enough collected that hot July afternoon to freeze for use in months to come.
Huckleberries—also known as “whortleberries” and “bilberries”—are a member of the populous Ericaceae family, of the genus” Vaccinium. Cranberries and blueberries also are part of this “family.” At least 450 varieties of huckleberry shrubs and lianas are said to exist. According to the Green Bluff, WA Country cookbook, produced by the mid-state Grange organization, the berry variety is reputed to be the oldest living thing—about
13, 000 years, at least.
The plant’s leaves are especially popular ingredients in floral arrangements, not to mention the dozens of recipes that incorporate the berry into loaves, muffins, pancakes, pies, and more.
Only grown in the wild (efforts to domesticate them have not been successful)—huckleberries are found throughout the western portion of the U.S. and Canada. They’re also the centerpiece of a booming industry where the tiny tart berries are transformed into products ranging from jams and jellies, to scented soaps and lotions, there are teas and taffies—even daiquiri mix!
Usually found growing in sub-alpine areas, often at the edges of forests, the berry bush, with its angled branches laden with tiny purplish red bead-like fruits, is a favorite of gourmands ranging from catbirds and towhees to skunks, grey foxes and grizzlies, and, of course, humans.
Loaded with anti-oxidents, this tangy, flavored fruit is reputed to be great for one’s vision, but there’s no clarification as to whether that’s human or animal visions. Nevertheless, according to one source the berry is crucial to the diet of the mountain beaver of the Oregon Coast Range. Health studies also have shown that even the banana slug eats red huckleberries.
Picking these berries, though, is a tedious, time-consuming job. It’s understandable why the cost per gallon is around approaching $70/gallon. Picking can be a hazardous activity, especially when harvesting in bear country. A piece of advice: check ahead to ensure you’ve not meandered into ursus minor or major territory, and we don’t mean the Big and Little Dippers.
In the annals of NW literature there are tall tales and true ones focused around this abundant food, In the Lewis and Clark journals, Capt. Lewis observed “This morning I arose very early and was as hungry as a wolf. I had eaten nothing yesterday except one scant meal of flour and berries, except the dried cakes of berries, which did not appear to satisfy my appetite…”
For Northwest and Rocky Mountain Native Americans huckleberries have been a staple of life for thousands of years. After harvesting, the berries were dried in the sun or smoked and mashed into cakes and wrapped in leaves or bark for storage. Tribes reportedly made special combs of wood or salmon backbones to strip berries from the bushes.
One ingenious Idahoan used a modified miner’s screened shaking table to sort berries from its leaves and branches.
According to an Internet “History” it’s said that for a little over two decades after the start of the 20th century, Montana families took working vacations during the summer months in the mountains to pick berries (known as hucks) to savor during the winter.
Between 1930-40 large camps were established in an area of northern Montana where the fire of 1910 had raged through. Forest fires are reputed to enhance growing conditions for the huckleberry, allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor. Fire also releases more nutrients into the soil, producing an ashy soil in which the plant thrives.
The huckleberry harvest was said to have been so great that a huge camp was established: populated with whites and Native Americans on opposite sides of the camp.
Much like earlier gold mining camps, the berry camps had a boomtown atmosphere, and each year boxcar-loads of berries were harvested. Those outings not only provided pickers with an easily available, nutritious food, but also offered a legitimate courting opportunity for young folks.
Today, in Montana the purple fruit has attained something of a cult status, and huckleberry festivals are held annually around the countryside. Trout Creek’s festival (held the 2nd week of August) has been held annually since 1979. In 1981, the small Montana community (pop. 261 in 2000) was declared the Huckleberry Capital of Montana.
What’s your favorite huckleberry recipe?
Bibliography: information gleaned from personal experience and from several Internet resources such as Linda Stradley’s 2004 History of Huckleberries, Helen Laws’ Green Bluff County Cookbook, ca.1989, and the Priest River Times, 1982.
A wide assortment of huckleberry products (from soaps to teas to candies) are available for order through the Internet (such as from the Lighthouse in Sandpoint, ID.) or from the Pacific Northwest Shop in Tacoma’s Proctor District. It’s also possible (provided you know someone on the island) to pick huckleberries on Anderson Island—but it’s very time consuming.