To call Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula the most beautiful place in America would be hyperbole, but it’s fair to say that it may be among the loveliest places you’ve never heard of, even if you’re an Upper Midwesterner.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula juts like a finger into the cool depths of Lake Superior, and the Keweenaw juts in turn off the U.P., extending northeast toward Canada. On the peninsula, the lake’s oceanic and ever-changing waters stretch from clean, rocky shores in every direction. Dense woods and isolated waterfalls create a peaceful aura. Up and down the sparsely traveled roads, you see buildings that are ghosts from a massive nineteenth-century copper boom—buildings too substantial and too ornate to make sense in such a quiet corner of the world. Adding to the otherworldly surroundings, the peninsula’s western shore is home to a group of cassock-wearing monks from the Society of St. John, under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Nicholas in Chicago. There, they study, pray, and sustain themselves by operating a locally renowned store called the Jampot.
How, I asked, do you pick them? “You don’t pick them,” he told me. “If you pick with your thumb and finger, all you’re going to get is a handful of seeds and juice.”
In the splendor of summer, the peninsula is packed with wild fruit, and the monks support their spiritual endeavors by turning those fruits into jams and jellies, while also churning out hand-made chocolates and muffins as big as your head. The store is a tourist magnet, and one of its best-known offerings—right up there with its substantial and intensely boozy fruitcake—is its thimbleberry jam.
Thimbleberries grow abundantly on the peninsula, and across parts of the rest of the United States as well, from Alaska down to California east to the Rockies and then, discontinuously, around the Great Lakes. On the Keewenaw, the harvest typically begins in late July and continues into the middle of August.
Shaped roughly like a thimble, each berries is, like a raspberry or blackberry, an aggregate of drupelets. The flavor is evocative of raspberry, but it’s more delicate, more herbal, and less punchy. The berries are best enjoyed on a neutral backdrop, like a bowl of mild yogurt, or spread on a thin slice of toast.
If you’ve never heard of them, join the large club. Thimbleberries’ delicate texture makes them essentially impossible to cultivate commercially. When I visited the peninsula in 2013, to research my book “Lake Superior Flavors,” I talked about that with Father Basil, head of the Society of St. John monastery, established near Copper Harbor in 1983.
How, I asked, do you pick them?
“You don’t pick them,” he told me. “If you pick with your thumb and finger, all you’re going to get is a handful of seeds and juice. You cup your hand beneath it and you just kind of pry it off with your thumb. And when a berry is ready, you’ve got about, at best, thirty-six hours to get it off the cane and into your bucket. Past thirty-six hours, it’s going to fall off that cane, dry up, or go moldy. In hot weather, much less time.”
He told me about a local woman who harvests with a militant fervor: “I said to her, ‘How are the thimbleberries?’ She said: ‘I’ve never worked so hard in all my life! I go out about noon and I pick the patch. Then I go out at six, and I pick the patch. Then I’m out there again the next day, about noon. And I don’t think I’m getting them all!’ She was pretty compulsive, but if you’re going to be thorough, you need to go over your patch every day for two, three weeks.” The monks of don’t have time to harvest the berries themselves, he said, so they have to weave relationships with the secular world: “The people who pick the berries, they’re foragers, and many of them have very interesting takes on things. We get people who are just picking enough to get their next bottle of wine, but the serious pickers are very interesting folks.”
You can buy thimbleberry jam on the Jampot website, but availability varies, and it’s sometimes only available as part of larger gift packs. In person, a 9 oz. jar is typically about $12, compelling you to savor every taste of the Keweenaw.