The Tangled History of the Boysenberry

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The Tangled History of the Boysenberry

Don’t let the name fool you. Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California is for all intents and purposes very much a theme park, complete with towering thrill attractions. But did you know it all began as a literal berry farm making for one of the wildest tales ever told in the Western U.S.? The then-20-acre rented farmland has now amassed 160 acres and has become one of the most visited parks in the nation.

It goes all the way back to the early 1920s, long before Walt Disney ever opened his park up down the road. It’s one of those well-kept stories you’ve likely never heard of—combining good ol’ fashioned hard work with the American dream. Walter and Cordelia Knott cruised into Southern California in 1920 (in their Model T Ford, nonetheless) with little money. They made up for their empty pockets with big ambitions.

Together with a cousin, who was an experienced farmer, they began farming berries. Despite the Great Depression and an unseasonably cold first season, they forged on, and by the end of the decade, they had become quite famous in the area. Their small stand had developed into a bona fide roadside attraction, complete with a tearoom and market where they served their homemade berry jams and other sweets. While they certainly weren’t living a glamorous life, their big break would soon come calling.

The Knotts family caught wind of a man named Rudolph Boysen, a sort of berry experimentalist, who had discovered a very special crop of berries. The hybrid fruit was said to be more delicious than the standard berry with notes of tartness cutting through the sweetness. It had many layers of flavor, and the Knotts knew they had a golden opportunity on their hands. After tracking Boysen down in the phonebook, they learned that the man’s harvest was not really much of anything. The tangled mess was a barely salvageable plant that he had all but given up on.

With trimmings of the long-forgotten plant in hand, the Knotts spent a year attempting to grow and harvest it, and much to their surprise, the fruits of their labor—literally—grew. The plant’s berries were massive in size and flavor, a cross between red raspberries, blackberries and loganberries. They named the newly minted crop “boysenberry” as an ode to the man who first cultivated them. And so, by 1934, the Knotts had became the first official harvesters of the plant. Their luck further extended as the crop proved to be the most bountiful they had cultivated to that point.

This newfound fruit was soon integrated into their line of commercially produced jams and was placed on the menu of the property’s tearoom, which Cordelia operated. Mrs. Knott took her foodie ambitions one step further and introduced a multi-course fried chicken dinner at the property, which culminated with a slice of boysenberry pie. People flocked to the tearoom, and by 1936, the dining accommodations nearly tripled in size to meet demand. Guests traveled from near and far for a piece of juicy fried chicken and a slice of the famous boysenberry pie. This resulted in multi-hour-long waits, which was unheard of at the time.

By the 1940s, a simple gift shop and tearoom wasn’t enough to entertain the thousands of hungry hopefuls that would arrive weekly. The perennial entrepreneurs turned to amusements, in the form of exhibits and other oddities, to entertain the masses. Somehow, it worked. A truly unique concept at the time, their roadside attraction grew to include an old ghost town, which is still in operation to this day, inside the park. The tearoom grew into Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, still welcoming guests every day of the week for its signature fried chicken dinner and pie in the 1,000-seat full-service restaurant.

The Knotts would eventually sell off their family jam recipes in 1995, but they still produce a handful of preserves available at the park under the Berry Market brand. Still, any boysenberry plant found anywhere in the world can trace its roots back to Knott’s Berry Farm.

Recently celebrating its 100th anniversary, the berry is still very much a part of the fabric of the park and has been integrated on menus property-wide. The list of berry-fueled options reads like a Bubba Gump Shrimp-level fever dream—there’s boysenberry soft serve, boysenberry churros, boysenberry corn dogs, boysenberry beer, boysenberry chicken wings, boysenberry barbecue sauce and much more.

The park’s annual boysenberry festival is the pinnacle of all things celebrating the hybrid fruit. “The boysenberry was the beginning of everything for this park and is such a huge part of our history,” shares Laura Brubaker, vice president of food and beverage at Knott’s Berry Farm. “We honor it by holding this springtime festival, which has become a tradition for us and the guests. Our guests really love seeing how many different, interesting items we can come up with every year.”

Taking place from March 18 through April 24, the 2022 festival’s menus were a full year in development with dozens of new boysenberry creations added to the park’s offerings. The hybrid fruit that almost never was sees itself across the park in wildly inventive forms, like crab sushi rolls with boysenberry aioli, boysenberry polenta and boysenberry horchata.

Personally, I’ll never forget my first bite of boysenberry. I first had it in a jam served alongside buttery biscuits at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, just outside the gates of the park. The legendary pie is every bit worth the hype, but my favorite remains the boysenberry soft serve with its wonderful custard-like consistency.

It would be easy to beeline it right to the park’s world-class coasters on a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm, but for me, it’s all about the history that’s hiding right under your nose (or fork).

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