A Blackberry Surprise… And Tom Lovering

Tom Lovering on his ski boat in the Sacramento Delta. In addition to the ski boat,Tom also owns a fishing boat, a sail boat and miscellaneous kayaks and rafts. His love of water matches my love of the mountains and wilderness.

Tom wanders in and out of these posts frequently. I first met him in 1974 when I walked into Alpine West, his outdoor gear and clothing store in Sacramento. I was planning my first 100 mile Sierra Backpack Trek as a fundraiser for the American Lung Association and was seeking a sponsor. After telling me that the trip was crazy and that people would come off the hike hating me and the ALA, he immediately offered to promote the event through his store. That’s Tom. We’ve been friends ever since and have had numerous adventures together that have included backpacking, boating and Burning Man, among others. He was with me when I found Bone on a backpacking trip in 1978. In the photo below, Tom has Bone woven into his hair on an 18 day raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon he led in 2010 that included Peggy, me, and other friends.

Tom shares a hairy moment with Bone. Some drinking may have been involved… Kudos to his hair stylist.
Here, Tom good-naturedly poses with sideshow art that was featured one year when Burning Man had a circus theme.

Three years ago, he and his friend Lita were deglazing a pot that they had used for cooking blackberry jam. Tom threw in a dollop of vodka to make the job easier. Naturally he couldn’t waste the vodka. Much to his delight, the sugar-enhanced blackberries combined with a generous helping of vodka went well together. A new drink was born: Blackberry Surprise! Over the next couple of years, he and Lita made pilgrimages to the Fort Bragg area on California’s Pacific Coast each summer to pick blackberries to mix with vodka as he refined his recipe.

I told him that lots of blackberries grow where we live and invited the two of them up to join Peggy and me in making Blackberry Surprise. To seal the deal, we sent him a photo of plump blackberries a week and a half ago.

The bait. Himalayan blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) are actually easy to find almost anywhere on the West Coast. Originally from Armenia, the plant has wonderfully large, sweet and juicy fruit. It is also incredibly invasive. Our canyon is filled with the plant and I do my best to keep it there. I will say it provides great cover for birds and wildlife.

Tom called immediately. “We’ll be up tomorrow,” he told me. I hadn’t expected the photo to elicit such a fast response.

“Um, Tom,” I replied, “we are having dinner out with our friends Don and Nan.”

“What time will you get home,” he asked. “Eight-ish” I replied. “Great, we’ll see you then.” I could hear Lita in the background suggesting you don’t call someone and show up the next day. Ha. Tom and Lita drove up the 320 miles from Sacramento in their Pleasureway van and were waiting at our house when we got back from dinner.

Tom immediately broke out a battery operated blender with the power of a professional Vitamix that he had invented and whipped us up a generous helping of Blackberry Surprise. We all went to bed happy.

Lita with Peggy in the back of the ski boat on the Sacramento River. The two bonded immediately. I suspect it may have had something to do with their discussion of their choice in men. When Tom and Lita first started dating, her grown daughters immediately jumped online to see what they could learn about him. The first photo they found was the one featured above with Bone in his hair that I had taken and posted on a blog. I would have loved to have heard their conversation. I imagine it went something like this: “OMG, Mother, what have you gotten yourself into!”
The rest of the story is best told in photos. Here, Tom and I are working our way though a patch that had particularly large berries. Many we found were on the smallish side due to the drought.Tom had bulled his way to the top using a ladder to break through the thorny challenge. Peggy, Lita and I worked our way around the edges. (The photos of us picking were taken by Peggy Mekemson and Lita Campbell on their smart phones.)
I reach through the berries for a particularly plump one. My shirt provided a degree of protection.
Peggy and I share a moment. Altogether, the four of us gathered some nine gallons of blackberries working over two mornings. Then the real work started.
Creating the Blackberry Surprise involved several steps. First up was gently boiling the blackberries to separate the fruit from the seeds. Next up, we strained the concoction. I then used our blender to further separate the left overs, using a portion of the vodka to add more liquid. We then strained that. Tom added sugar and once again heated the blackberries. We then added more vodka and bottled the final project. (Tom wanted to strain everything one final time but we restrained him instead, so to speak.)
The next morning we reenacted part of the process for a photo op. “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble.” Tom chanted as he stirred away.
Tom demonstrates the importance of sampling the product frequently as it is made. “Ah, just the right amount of vodka,” he declared.
But then he warned of the danger of too much sampling…
A final photo of our booty. Altogether we made some 14 gallons of Blackberry Surprise. (All of the bottles minus the five gallon jug had been filled with vodka when Tom arrived.) I kept approximately a gallon of Tom’s elixir and sent the rest home with him.
Tom took this photo of Lita, Peggy and I as he and Lita prepared to leave for Sacramento with their Blackberry Surprise.

NOTE: This is one of the occasional blogs I am posting this summer as I take a break.

42 thoughts on “A Blackberry Surprise… And Tom Lovering

  1. Curt, we will be in your area soon to see a relative. When we planned the trip, I suggested to Alie we invite you and Peggy to dinner, but that was before the heat wave. Now we plan to duck into Central Point and right back out to the coast which is cool and beautiful.
    By coincidence, we came upon a patch of ripening blackberries earlier today. Perhaps I should make a note of your recipe – in much smaller quantities.

    • Maybe we could work out lunch, Ray. Indoor mask requirements will be back in force but I don’t think they will be closing restaurants. Be sure to include the Rogue Creamery in your stop if you like cheese. They still have the blu-cheese in stock that won last years International competition for being the best cheese in the world. –Curt

      • I would have loved to have met you and Peggy in person, but it was just too hot for us. It was 107 as we came in from the coast. We made a hotel reservation for one night, had dinner with the relative, and will head to Eureka in the morning. Maybe some other time.
        Hope you and Peggy are doing OK. It is not just the heat, but we were struck by the smoke when we headed down this side of the mountains.

      • Sorry we missed you Ray. And you are right about the smoke! It’s become a regular visitor in the summer starting in July and extending into October. Not fun! Makes me think about selling the house and full-timing it on the road— regularly moving to where global warming is having the least impact at the moment. 🙂 –Curt

  2. When we get to Armenia, should we be looking for an original version of Blackberry Surprise? I’m sure the Russians brought plenty of vodka when they arrived.

  3. What a wonderful friendship, I remember Tom from your stories, he was beside you on that Lung Association fundraiser. He has a great recipe, nothing can beat the wild blackberries😁 Although it goes well with any type of berry😉

    • I think Tom and I have gotten into more mischief than we have gotten out of, Christie. 🙂 And I am sure you are right. I’ve sure had my share of vodka and orange juice over the years.

  4. Blackberry Surprise – sounds delightful! Reminds me of the hot summer day we concocted ‘Parsley Oops’. (Oops, we may have added a bit much gin.)

  5. wow what fun You and Peggy are having with Tom and Lita.. Ya know you’re pretty close and could be sharing a bottle over here for a visit. You sure earned your keep with all that help picking.
    Cheers to more good times💖💖

  6. Hopefully the vodka component dulled any pain from bramble scratches, too! We can’t seem to pick our berries without paying in some blood 🤣.
    This sounds like such a fun time- thanks for stopping in to share, Curt.

  7. Wow! OMG the shenanigans you get up to. Productive fun! I’m glad you got to keep some of it. I eat my way around the forest trail I hike daily these days. As you say, the berries are small because of the drought, but if you get them at the exact moment of ripeness they are soooo good. 👍
    Alison

    • I might add, Allison, that those shenanigans are often related to Tom being somewhere nearby, a fact I am sure he would strongly deny. 🙂
      The small blackberries are just as tasty! I might add that the bears love them as well. We came on a large pile of scat following the trail I built through the forest that reflected just how much. It was indeed a Blackberry Surprise! –Curt

  8. Oh, funny you were posting about Tom when at that same time Pedro was actually suggesting he might try to sneak rocks into my backpack without me knowing it. Isn’t that story from you and Tom? I think that’s how Bone found you two, anyhow. Luckily, I did not discover any rocks in my pack. This blackberry haul looks amazing. NINE gallons. I can only imagine how many scratches you paid in fees to get all that. It would have been fun with Tom’s enthusiasm to guide the way.

    • Hi Crystal! Right. It was Bone playing rock that got him adopted by Tom and I. Grin.
      Ha. I’ll bet you were leaving Pedro behind on the trail again. Poor fellow.
      Rocks in packs were a time honored tradition on our Treks.
      Next time you and Pedro visit, we will be sure to break out the Blackberry Surprise. It’s important not to have anything else scheduled for the evening, however. 🙂 –Curt

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