I had email from a relative last week who was reminiscing about her favorite memory of my mom. It had to do with picking strawberries when she visited our place at a very young age. Points East
I have many, many amazing good memories of my mother, but let me say, for the record, that not a single one of them involves strawberries. In fact, even after I became an adult, I had nightmares about Mom and strawberries. For instance, one recurring dream had me drowning in a railroad gondola filed with strawberries and all I had was a gallon lard bucket with which to bail myself out. My mom, instead of pulling me out of the sea of berries, kept yelling that if I worked a little faster, I could save myself.
When I was growing up my parents came up with the bright idea that the road from rags to riches had to do with a couple acres of strawberries. Dad ordered the plants through the Extension Service and followed the planting instructions to the letter. Every afternoon for a week or so our family spent the hours between the time he got home from the mines and I got home from school, setting strawberry plants in a couple of hillside fields that he had prepared for that purpose.
I was only in second grade but the memory is as fresh as though it happened yesterday. I honestly didn’t mind that first year, even though it was back breaking, because I was so excited about the prospect of an unlimited supply of strawberries. Prior to the commercial endeavor, we had one little patch that yielded about a gallon at a time and these were devoured about as fast as we could pick them. Mom managed to put up seven quarts or so for cobblers during the winter and said cobblers were a huge treat during the winter. I can remember having the choice between strawberry cobbler or a cake for my birthday in January and the cobbler won without a second thought.
The Extension Service adamantly insisted that all blooms be picked off the first year so that all the growth could go to runners. Keeping those blooms picked off was a daily chore and a dire omen of things to come. But sure enough, the plants grew and flourished and by the end of that first summer what had started out with a couple or three thousand plants in a single furrows turned into rows three feet wide with plants in the tens of thousands.
The first harvest, in year two, coincided with the last day of school as I recall. Neighbors and cousins were enlisted to help pick berries “on the halves” a gallon for us and a gallon to take home. I was just out of third grade and was advised that I was picking for my room and board. Mom was the field boss and Dad took time off his regular work to handle marketing chores. The berries were graded for shipping and for the local market, which consisted of numerous grocery stores and plain old door-to-door peddling. Mom kept all the rejects such as mashed or deformed berries for our own use.
As field boss, she surveyed the work of every picker and woe be to anybody who missed a single ripe berry. So at night, after picking at least 20 gallons of berries each, we sat in the kitchen and mashed berries for jam, stuffed them into quart jars for canning and into plastic cups for freezing. Mom even experimented with drying them. Another relative made wine, much to Mom’s dismay.
We ate strawberry something for breakfast, lunch and supper and snacked on strawberries in the field. This went on pretty much 24/7 for five weeks or so.
And it soon became obvious that for the duration (more than 10 years) our lives would revolve around strawberries. Some variation of strawberries was on the meal table 365 days a year. I even had to take strawberry jam and peanut butter sandwiches to school for lunch. I learned to despise strawberry pies and cobbler.
I’m not even going to get into all the work that had to do with plowing and resetting plants for the next year, but suffice to say the work lasted all summer. Suffice, also, to say that strawberries soon became the ultimate disillusionment of my young life.
So, for most of my adult life, I have graciously refused anything strawberry. However, just over a year ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes, I discovered that strawberries were one of the few sweet fruits I could devour without having a sugar spike and I’ve learned to love them again. I go through a couple quarts a week now and I am amazed that they are available in the grocery store 12 months of the year. I’m not sure how or where they are grown — just that they satisfy my sweet tooth.
Strawberries are in season in central Kentucky right now and several nearby growers offer the option of picking them yourself for half price. I take one look at the long rows and tell them that I’ll pass on picking and pay full price. I don’t want the nightmares to start again.