Sunday, July 3, 2011

for becky, with love and savor.

strawberries are summer sun solidified. picking one off the plant still warm from the morning rays and biting into it is the best way i know to rejoice in the miracle of food from photosynthesis. if i had to name a taste for summer, that would be it, much more so than watermelon or hot dogs or even tomatoes.
growing up, june meant strawberries. even though i lived on the edge of a major metropolis and knew nothing of country life, every june my family would drive out to the boonies (i.e. wisconsin) and pick at least six gallons of strawberries. it would take us all morning, and then we would stop off at a restaurant (the same one every time--the brat stop) for lunch and head back home to sort and process our bounty.
we would turn the picnic table in our backyard into the sorting station, with bowls for over-ripe, 'now' ripe, not-quite-ripe, and 'wait a bit' ripe berries. the the over-ripe ones we ate right there or threw out if need be--sometimes the most perfect looking berries on the plant don't last the car ride home, what with the back of the van turning into a green house in the brat stop parking lot, and making the whole car smell like summer baked in a pie. the 'now' berries we cut into fourths and stirred a 1/4-1/2cup sugar into, then let them sit in the fridge to macerate. those mom would pour over freshly baked shortcakes (from the recipe on the back of the bisquick box) topped with a dollop of home-made whipped cream. there were usually so many 'now' berries (short for 'you gotta eat them now cuz they will be too ripe tomorrow') that we were eating strawberry shortcake for a week after picking. it was my favorite week of the year. (the only other times that got close were the weeks around dad's birthday when farmer's market peaches meant peach pie was in season and the month in the fall after we went apple picking and apple pie, crumble, and -sauce were on the menu nonstop.) the not-quite-ripe berries were the ones we cut up, sugared, and froze for a bit of summer sun in the wintertime. see, the name is misleading--these were really more like 'by the end of the week these will be close to over-ripe' berries. that said, the 'wait a bit' ones were just that. they could wait till we dealt with all the other more ripe berries before we ate or froze them. there really wasn't an unripe or even under-ripe strawberry to be seen in our harvest.
i just remember that every year, what felt like tons of fresh strawberries needed to be consumed over a very short period of time. cuz it's really hard to keep them for more than a week or so. and i know i felt (and still do) that they were never as good baked as they were fresh. apples and stone fruit are better for baking. so eating and freezing were the only options we felt we had. this was partially because once you have eaten a strawberry as perfect and ripe as you get right off the plant, (and not picked early, sprayed with crazy chemicals and shipped across the country) you will never want to go back. that early experience has ruined me for store-bought strawberries forever. and i can't tell you how grateful i am.
nowadays there are things like strawberry, pecan, bleu cheese, and spinach salad, or strawberry lemonade slushies, or strawberry rhubarb pie (my friend kayt's specialty) or mixed berry coulis spooned over vanilla ice cream, or simply a fresh fruit salad.
i've even known friends to make strawberry jam and/or preserves. one of those doesn't take much (or any) pectin...or is that freezer jam...? i'm not as well versed in preserving as i want to, or will be, once i have a kitchen again. but when i was young there was only one thing god put strawberries on earth for. well, two. one, was to be eaten right of the plant (as described above) and two, was strawberry shortcake. in my mind there was no need for anything else. i guess i still believe that.

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