February isn’t the time of year you think about preserving or canning food products, at least in most parts of the country. However it is a time when many folks are enjoying them. My sister back in North Dakota, knowing how much I love consuming all things chokecherry, gave me a small container of chokecherry syrup as a Christmas gift. I have recently been enjoying it (sparingly – it’s a small jar) on French toast on leisurely weekend mornings, along with a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea in my new University of North Dakota alumni coffee mug, another Christmas gift from my sister.
Growing up in North Dakota, my memories of chokecherries go way back. Both my grandmothers were wonderful cooks and canners, however it’s my maternal grandmother who I remember most making chokecherry jelly and syrup. On warm late summer days we would pick chokecherries in an open area near my grandparents’ home in tiny Oberon, N.D., not far from my hometown of Devils Lake. Picking these tiny berries wasn’t like picking something like strawberries, where you would pick three and eat two as the berries were rather sour and bitter. In fact it was a rather laborious process as the berries were tiny and the bushes gnarly. However the reward was sweet when Grandma would take the bright and dark berries and turn them into divine jellies and syrup. Even as a kid, I appreciated their dark, rich maroon color and their sweet, deep berry rich flavor. I would slather the pretty jelly over a layer of butter on my grandmother’s homemade bread and generously pour the syrup on a stack of pancakes.
When I left North Dakota for Colorado, then the D.C. area and now California, I learned many people weren’t familiar with the fruit, much less the jelly and syrup, as the bush and its berries are more commonly found in the northern tier states. If you google chokecherries, you learn that Prunus virginiana is most closely related to the black cherry and was an important part of the diet of Native Americans in the Northern Plains and Rockies for both food and medicinal purposes, including using the bush’s bark to ward off and treat colds and tummy troubles. I also learned that in 2007 North Dakota made the chokecherry the state’s official fruit.
The Internet has made it easy to order chokecherry products online, however I am always on the lookout for them when I travel back to North Dakota. As my Grandma got older and moved out of her home and her ready nearby chokecherry source she didn’t always make chokecherry products every year. Some years back Grandma was still alive and living in her own apartment I made a date with her for the two us to make a batch of chokecherry jelly, a memory I will always treasure.
There aren’t an abundance of all things chokecherry recipes on the Internet, and I am not sure how many are available in cookbooks. I am guessing that back in the day all the cookbooks produced by churches in small towns throughout Northern Plains and other areas where chokecherries grow in abundance included multiple recipes for chokecherry products. Chef and cookbook author Amy Thielen’s “The New Midwestern Table,” a cookbook published just a few years ago, includes a recipe for chokecherry nectar. Thielen, who grew up in Minnesota, describes chokecherries as follows. “The flavor of chokecherries is like a rogue black currant – the same deep winy berry flavor but with a punkier nature.”
If you also appreciate all things chokecherry, please share with me your uses and recipes for chokecherry products.