Apr 20 2009

Strawberries

“Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.” –Dr. William Butler, 17th Century English Writer

It was maybe two or three weeks ago that I was driving back from a trip to the hardware store, my van weighted down with the bags of compost and mulch that were going into the garden when I first saw it–the little red wooden farm stand set up in the parking lot of the gas station on the corner of RT 17 and RT 210, with a banner that said Lewis Farms and a red painted strawberry. I didn’t even hesitate. I swung into the station and spent the last ten bucks in my pocket on two quarts of freshly-picked, locally grown strawberries.

I grew up in western New York state, which is known, aside from its snowy winters, as “the fruit basket” because of its extensive orchards and rich farm land. This was a bounty that my mother did not neglect to appreciate–she often took the family on trips to the farms in search of apples, pears, plums, cherries, and strawberries. As children my brother, sister and I could mark the passing of the year by the fruit that was in season. We visited smaller farms with”U-pick” orchards and fields, and Mom, blithely unconcerned about child labor laws, would turn us loose with baskets and bushels and tell us to fill them. I learned to climb trees by picking apples in the fall. I learned I was impervious to wasp stings picking plums in the summer. And I learned that spring was really here when strawberries were in season.

Of course, I know now that there are more economical ways to buy strawberries. When I was older I realized that the strawberries we were paying for the privilege to pick were twice as expensive as the ones we could buy already packed in their little plastic pint baskets. I was incensed when I discovered this, until my mother, ever practical, pointed out that we kids ate at least as many berries as we put in our baskets out on the field. I’m not sure why mom made all the extra effort to drag three kids out to farm country to get themselves dirty and exhausted picking fruit, but I am glad she did. Not only did these “u-pick” orchard visits give us a fair amount of exercise, but we learned first hand that not all cherries or apples were alike. I discovered the difference between a MacIntosh apple and a Yellow Delicious. And I came to associate the passing of each month with the smell of the fruit in the car as we drove home, hot, weary and happy, with baskets of berries on our laps–too full to eat any more, even if we wanted to. To this day, I have a very Proustian moment whenever I smell strawberries under the hot sun. It takes me right back to those days of kneeling in the sandy fields under a spring sun, floppy hat on my head, my grubby fingers greedily pulling at even the not-quite-ripe berries and cramming them into my mouth.

Those childhood memories of fresh-picked berries made such an impression on me that for the rest of my life I have been disappointed by the taste of strawberries that I haven’t picked myself, or at least bought from some small roadside stand. I’m not above picking up a few pints of the one billion pounds of strawberries shipped out of the state of California now and then, but they never taste as good as the local ones. They are too clean, perhaps. Too sterilized. They never taste of the sun and sand and they never smell of the country. So I really only indulge myself in strawberries when they show up in the farmer’s markets, and once they are gone, I don’t eat them again until spring comes around the next year. And when I see the little red wooden stand show up at the 17/210 intersection, my heart gives a little leap of joy. I’m a little past crawling out in the fields for my berries, but Lewis Farms in Pender County is where I like to buy them (already picked). And if you are into picking them yourself–or you just want to tire out your kids–now is the time. Strawberry season peaks in May, and their stand out on Gordon Road offers homemade ice cream to hot and tired pickers. They also have a u-pick spot out on Castle Hayne Road, near GE. Both spots are open these days from 8-6 during the week, and 1-6 on Sundays.

There are thousands of recipes for strawberries–from the erotically-charged strawberries-and-champagne to the rather homey strawberry shortcake. I confess, I don’t know any of them. Strawberries to me are one of nature’s perfect foods–so delicious in themselves that I never can bring myself to waste them in some dessert recipe. Mom used to make sure we brought home enough berries that she could make jam, but eventually even she decided that was a terrible waste. Eight berries give you all the Vitamin C you will need for the day. A cup of berries is about 55 calories. You might as well just eat them plain, because anything else is just overkill. The people who chop up strawberries and pile them on those little gold cakes and spray them with that canned whipped cream are committing a culinary crime. (The original strawberry shortcake is a Native American thing–colonists watched the Indians mash up small wild berries with cornmeal to make little cakes. The colonists liked the idea, but had an addiction to sugar that haunts American cooking to this day.)

Besides, strawberries are a little like sushi–best if eaten within a few hours of being picked. They are not improved by refrigeration, and the pigments that make strawberries red, anthocyanin, are heat sensitive. They break apart and turn brown when exposed to heat or warm temperatures. So really, your best bet is to just eat them on the way home from the farm stand. Don’t wash them until you are ready to eat them, and eat them directly after you have washed them. In a pinch, you can wait until dinner, but not any longer than that. If you want them for breakfast the next morning, then put them in the fridge unwashed, and let them come to room temperature before you start cutting them up over your cereal.

And although I almost never eat strawberries anyway but right out of the bowl, I did make this salad once, and it was so good that it made my very short list of “approved uses for strawberries.” (The other approved uses are not exactly “recipes”):

Strawberry and Spinach Salad
1 pint fresh strawberries
2 bunches fresh spinach
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons minced green onion
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1. Wash strawberries under cool running water. Remove caps and set aside to drain.
2. Wash spinach and remove large tough stems. Tear large leaves into small pieces. Drain.
3. In a medium bowl combine remaining ingredients and whisk together.
4. Slice strawberries into halves or quarters and place in a large bowl. Add dry spinach.
5. Pour dressing over all and toss.
Makes 8 servings.


Apr 1 2009

reception

there is a whine, a high
pitched ringing in my ears
for days now and
I feel like an old radio
dials not quite lit
on the right frequency
for clarity