The truth about boysenberries

Although I was unceremoniously stripped of my title as Reporter food editor several years ago following an unfortunate incident involving catfish and chili, I still get plenty of questions from readers seeking arcane bits of information about objects they believe may be edible.

Just last week a local gourmand telephoned to ask if there was really any difference between boysenberries and marionberries.

Since I’m sure plenty of other readers have tossed and turned through many sleepless nights pondering this very same question, I’m more than willing to explain the so-called marionberry-boysenberry controversy here and now.

Admittedly, the marionberry and the boysenberry look and taste pretty much the same, depending on the relative proximity of the local chemical waste dump to the ol’ berry patch.

There, however, the similarity ends, because their names are spelled quite differently.

And there’s a very good reason for that.

Several, actually.

To fully explore this subject, we need to go back to the autumn of 1830 when a hungry Kentucky wheelwright named Mac Sarblatt gobbled three buckets of what we now know as boysenberries and promptly fell down dead.

Passers-by blamed Sarblatt’s hearty repast for his demise and promptly named his last meal “Poisonberries,” neglecting to note that Sarblatt had also consumed three quarts of rotgut whiskey with his sumptuous snack after having been shot twice in the back by a disgruntled riverboat gambler.

The tasty outdoor treat was shunned for more than 20 years until a plucky group of Mennonite pioneers, lost on the great Iowa Desert, discovered acres of the large, sweet berries and exclaimed “Boy, some berries!”

Since these are the very same folks who are believed to have coined the popular exclamation “Land o’ Goshen!” the name stuck.

(Whaddya mean “Are you sure?” Of course I’m sure. You can find this stuff in any history book…)

Marionberries, on the other hand, are named after all-American actor John Wayne, whose real name – which he thoroughly detested – was Marion.

Trying for a few laughs at Wayne’s expense, late Hollywood tough guy Lee Marvin jokingly presented Wayne with a 12-gallon bowl of boysenberries on his birthday in 1958, exclaiming “Happy birthday, Duke! I got ya a big bowl of maaaaarrrrrionberries!”

Wayne characteristically broke a chair over Marvin’s head.

The fight was broken up a short time later by comedian Larry Storch.

Wayne and Marvin subsequently became close friends and even starred together in the little-known Hollywood cult classic “The Sands of Pescadero” (1967).

The die, however, was cast and “marionberries” were born. To this day, marionberries and boysenberries have different names for different reasons and many people view them as, er, different.I hope this clears up any confusion…

Originally published August 24, 2003

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