14 April, 2015
Tales of Strawberry Season: Now & Then
After a long winter of preparing recipes centering around California’s wintery greens and juicy citrus, this time of year is one of my favorites – that moment when I spy the season’s first strawberries. The Upper Haight Farmers’ Market starts tomorrow. Based on the ripeness of the local berries in a local grocer on our block, there are sure to be some amazing varieties available.
There was a time in my life where I thought strawberries were crisp and had white centers. In the wintery South – sugar-laden, atop a sweet biscuit, in the form of strawberry shortcake – they tasted amazing! The juices released “naturally” and their color intensified dramatically – like magic. Just-picked, stems attached, dipped in powdered sugar, there was a certain rush you could get as a kid. The same feeling, perhaps, as that jolt temporarily given by caffeine – just before you feel its crash.
A “snowbird” from the age of 8, I learned to appreciate the best seasons Florida and Michigan had to offer. I quickly learned to forget hot and humid summers and didn’t come to know what below-zero felt like until I was 18. It was around 1987 in northern Michigan that my babysitter brought me to her family’s farm.
The first time I picked strawberries on Clark’s Berry Farm, now closed, was where I learned that the center of a naturally sweet strawberry was red and its ripe texture tender. About five miles north of town, just across from where I’d later attend summer camp, there was a small road just north of Hale, off M-65 and about a half mile to the east, led to the “storefront” on the left. Mason jars of jam lined the converted two-car garage. Rows of pint-sized baskets filled with ripe seasonal fruit filled a banquet table to the left of a small cash register. Backup flats were neatly stacked all the way to the back door entry. If you were lucky enough to enter that door in June or July, the smell of strawberry pie wafted through the old white farmhouse. I could barely wait to get out to the field to see where the berries grew.
To my childhood legs, the walk down the two track to the north seemed like an eternity. We passed by a log cabin on the left before the field of bountiful ankle-to-knee-high plants in neat rows appeared. There were people squatting and kneeling, carefully choosing and filling their soft-sided baskets with bright red strawberries. Once at the edge of the first row, and at that age, I couldn’t resist the urge to bend over and eat one right then and there. It was the best thing I had ever put in my mouth and I never forgot that moment. Every summer I would look forward to my days and nights on that farm. After it closed, years went by before I would find strawberries like the ones on my babysitter’s family farm – though a few came close many years later in Florida during the dead of winter.
While trying to find photos online, I ran across this posting from Brent Clark:
“This was my family farm. It was in operation in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. We had 8 acres of strawberries, 3 acres of raspberries and 7 acres of asparagus. The berries were primarily U-pick, and the asparagus was harvested by the family and employee’s and sold in the shop. It was not uncommon to have 200 people picking berries each morning. Our hallmark was minimum use of chemicals and virtually weed free fields–achieved by almost endless weeding by hand. Thomas Clark who grew the crops was a master of balancing soil and consistently produced sweet, mold free fruit that was also free of the taste imparted by growing against various weed types. Of course he was my father, so I may be biased :-). All of the fields have been converted back to hay production–only the irrigation station and various scales remain at the farm as a reminder of fruit production. If you read this…Michigan…produces some of the finest berries, cherries and peaches in the Nation.”
Not long after I moved to California in 2009, I rediscovered my love of strawberries about three blocks from home at my neighborhood farmers’ market. I came to realize that when I lived in Florida, most of the berries in commercial grocers come from Watsonville, California. Around this time, I also began paying more attention to buying organic produce directly from local farmers. I have learned that buying local and organic in season is not only affordable, but it is also sustainable. I value eating the most flavorful and beneficial fruits and vegetables I can find, in addition to supporting those who make eating them possible. I look forward to a season of new recipes, beginning this week.