Thursday, July 5, 2012

A short story about Strawberries

Last Spring I bought twenty five strawberry plants - likely the last I will ever buy in this lifetime. Later I was given a few dozen more. Each plant has been sending out runners, and I have all the plants I will ever want at this point. I thought I would write a short tribute to their fruits.

On June 8, I harvested my first strawberry of the year. I tasted my strawberry and drank sweet wine (cider for the child). I cut it in thirds and we ceremoniously each ate. It was...cardboardy. It was sour without actually having much flavor. Parts of it were watermelon red, other parts were pinky-white. It was days from ripe.

We went out of town that weekend. We came back to find two ripe strawberries. They were a deep red, all the way through. They were almost too flavorful, their sugars densely mingled with essences of rich, mineral laden earth. Their seeds crunched loudly in my teeth.

On the 11th, I picked the dismembered parts of four  strawberries, with gouged out holes where crows had ripped them up. I threw three of them in the compost bucket. I carved up a tiny edible slice of the last one and savored it. It was so dense, the juices had to be coaxed out, tasting like the hot smell of beehives and honey dripping straight from the comb. I covered the bed with chicken wire to keep out further crows.

It rained all night and all the next day. After the rain, I crawled under the chicken wire through the wet dirt and harvested eight soggy strawberries. Two were grey with fungus. I sliced up the other six and sprinkled them with sugar. After an hour their watery juice had made a syrup that, spooned over shortcake, tasted exactly like something you would buy at a diner. Generic, sweet, addictive, but without the passionate terroir of the first few fruits.

The next day there were no ripe berries, and thereafter I followed a pattern of picking every other day. Sixteen berries, each bearing a tiny slug the size of a pencil point, embedded in a scooped out portion of flesh. The rest of the berry was firm, deep red, and tasted punchy and fermented, like werewolf berries bitten by a wild pineapple under a full moon.

Thirty two berries decorated with grass clippings from a mulching lawn mower. Sixty four berries that had gotten slightly over ripe and nearly purple when I missed a harvest due to illness. One hundred twenty eight berries, several of which grew partway through the chicken wire and were girdled so that only part of them ripened. I found myself idly speculating that strawberry plants are like a fruit tree with only the top and bottom and no trunk. I'm not sure what I was thinking about.

I had enough berries. I didn't need to count any more. I took off the wire. I could afford to share with the crows.

I could find the berry patch in darkness by the smell of strawberries, which is slightly heavier than air and hangs in a low cloud over the plants.

 I made strawberry jam. I baked a rich tart shell and filled it with berries. I sugared them and froze them for smoothies. I tic tac toed them into the crevices of waffles. I made a dessert pizza with strawberries and lashings of white chocolate, and then, inspired by my success, I made a dinner pizza with strawberry oregano sauce. It was a failure. I macerated strawberries with lemon basil, I stirred them into yogurt. My back hurt from crouching in the strawberry bed.

I woke up singing "Let me take you down" and not knowing why.

Then one day, instead of 1024 strawberries, I only had 512. The next day, just over two hundred, and pretty soon, I was down to zero. I felt like someone who had run a fever and was convalescing. I had that weak, woozy, happy feeling, but also that sad, back to the daily routine feeling. I miss strawberries.

Eating with the seasons seems to follow the stages of a youthful crush. First there's longing - waiting - hopelessness. Then the first sweet taste of fulfillment, and foreshadows of disappointment.

Then there's the building up toward knowing that it's real. Having enough.

That perfect moment of Rightness, when this is what you want, all that you want, and time is immaterial.
Then the cresting wave, and feeling overwhelmed, swept up, caught up - scared at how intense it is. The rest of your life feels like it's been put on hold to this unrelenting demand.

And then suddenly, the receding rush of it leaving you, over too soon. Maybe it was you (I'm always the one that does the breaking up with zucchini), or maybe it was the produce (the shell peas always leave me before I'm ready to say goodbye).

Then putting back together the other parts of life. Those year-round relationships, the kale, the chickens, are still there, and still need my attention.

The strawberry hulls go in the worm bin. There are bags of sugared berries in the freezer, but not the immediate rush of sunshine and growing things in seasons. Only now the raspberries are starting to ripen.

 Isn't it great that you know you can still get that excited? And that there will be a next time? Another year of strawberries. When one day I'm not there to enjoy it, at least this year was good.

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