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Hunt for Wild Blackberries Leads to Friendship

The wild blackberry, my favorite summer treat, was the key that opened the door to Mildred Rowe. I wanted to write a biography of the 88-year-old owner of Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery in Staunton, Va., but she had deflected my efforts to get to know her — until the subject of blackberries came up.

After months of "interviews," we traveled to her hometown of Rich Patch, Va., deep in the Allegheny Highlands. I had a new strategy. If she wouldn't talk to me, I would observe her, listen to her conversations with other family members, and most important, let her know I was not giving up.

She walked the hillsides as if she were 28 instead of 88, with me trailing behind her. Then she plunked herself under a big oak tree at her old family cemetery, and I sat beside her.

As I looked up at the tree, I told her a story about my fear of birds. In it, I was desperate for some huge, wild blackberries that hung like dark purple jewels just a little higher than I could reach. As I reached for one of the larger berries, a mother bird came flapping her wings and pecking at my head until it bled.

"Did you get the berries?" she wanted to know. There it was, a sparkle in her eye — and a connection.

"Yes, bloody head and all. I guess I'd do just about anything for some good blackberry cobbler. My mom makes the best I've ever had," I said.

"We'll see about that," she said with mock indignation.

In the momentary silence, I found my heart beating as I looked out over the rolling, green hills. It seemed a perfect time to launch into an interview. And just like that, she started talking.

"Well, I've run into some snakes, mostly coppers, some rattlers, near blackberry patches, but never birds. Now that's something," she said and chuckled.

On our ride back to Staunton, with Rowe taking intermittent naps and commenting about the flora along the highway, I realized my interview approach had been all wrong. She was a woman of action — sitting down with her one on one was not the way to probe her mind.

This was an earthy woman who took great joy in the simple act of picking blackberries. Rowe wasn't interested in feminist theories about women in the restaurant business or even discussing food and restaurant trends.

Once I began to ask questions about her berry-picking adventures, though, I also learned about her passion for picking and growing all sorts of vegetable and fruits — and for cooking or baking something good from the bounty. This spoke to the heart of who she was.

Growing up on a struggling subsistence farm, where she learned to garden and forage for survival, Rowe never dreamed of owning a restaurant, let alone one that serves half a million customers a year.

But in 1946, her first husband left her with three small children to raise. With sporadic (at best) child-support payments, and no welfare system yet, Rowe took a chance and bought a restaurant.

Her first roadside restaurant in Goshen, Va., was a success — she paid off her loan in six years and had enough money in the bank to invest in her new husband's failing restaurant in Staunton. She turned it around with her down-home country cooking, intuitive business sense, sassy personality and gardening skills.

Rowe rented a patch of land near the restaurant where she grew everything from green beans to rhubarb — all of which ended up on the menu. What she couldn't grow herself, she got from local farmers, with whom she built solid relationships. And, of course, she helped herself to the wild blackberries growing freely nearby.

Her nephew, Carroll Mays, said some of his fondest memories of his Aunt Millie are of blackberry picking when they lived in Goshen, a quaint mountain village.

"Some people have sought adventure in searching for gold. Aunt Millie's gold was a blackberry patch, and she exhibited a similar fervor with blackberries that a miner would with gold," Mays said.

Other family members and customers also offered blackberry stories. One of Rowe's granddaughters had even written a short story about picking blackberries for her. A vendor for the restaurant remembered how Rowe sheepishly admitted to picking berries at the local golf course — giving the owners fits. Still, she would not abide the waste of letting the berries rot on the bush.

The Appalachian Alleghenies still abound with wild blackberries, which are native to the region. Both Mildred and I probably were picking and enjoying the Allegheny blackberry (rhubus alleghenienus) — me in my Pennsylvania woods and she in the Virginia mountains years before I was born. Both of us were participating in a foraging ritual as old as the berry itself.

Later that same summer, Rowe called, summoning me to the restaurant. Waiting for me was a big piece of homemade blackberry cobbler, still slightly warm. She watched as I took my first bite. It tasted like a piece of fresh summer — so delicious it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

"Well?" she said, eyes wide. "Better than your mother's cobbler?"

I chose my words carefully.

"You know, I really couldn't say such a thing about my own mother's cobbler..."

"Guess not," she said, laughed, and winked.

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Mollie Cox Bryan