By Vivian Howard
I live out in the country in Deep Run. Not like a country house on Long Island where you can zip out your door and be in a gourmet market shopping for artisan bread in a matter of minutes, but a country house like when I was growing up, our water came from a well. Our well was serviced by a pump and we had what we called a pump house, a little structure that mimicked the design of our home surrounding the pump. My mom planted a strawberry patch around the pump house sometime shortly after I was born because I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. She will probably argue with me when I say this, but I watered, weeded and picked that little strawberry patch for several springs growing up. I knew the petite white blooms would eventually mean sweet floral berries and I checked patiently for them to turn red. When the berries were just right, I picked them carefully, took them straight inside, topped and washed them over the sink and went to crushing with my mom’s collard chopper.
My mom is a tough and resourceful lady. She has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life, has had two shoulder replacements, numerous other surgeries on her hands and feet and has never taken anything other than ibuprofen for pain. Using a knife to do work like slicing strawberries was very hard for her, so the collard chopper was a tool we used in excess in the Howard kitchen. Those strawberries may not have been pretty, but after I tore them apart with the collard chopper, gave them a good dousing in sugar and let them sit for the minimum amount of time it took the juice to leach out, they were wonderful!
I’m sorry to disappoint and tell you that we did not spoon my sugared strawberries over freshly baked biscuits and top them with hand-whipped, vanilla sweetened cream. No, we scooped the muddled delicious mess onto a tasty cake, with a hole in the center, from the IGA and crowned the whole thing with Cool Whip. I knew no different at the time and could not have imagined anything better. I’m having a hard time imagining an experience to top it now.
Despite what the produce section at the grocery store tells up, strawberries have a season, and within that season the qualities of the fruit change. The first flush of strawberries are not my favorite and are rarely very sweet. As the season progresses and the weather warms, the berries grow sweeter and more tender.
- Do what you can to avoid refrigerating strawberries. If you buy them in a store, chances are they at least traveled there in a refrigerated truck. If you buy them at the market, inquire as to whether the berries were just picked. Refrigeration takes away much of the fragrance and sheen from a strawberry.
- If you are lucky enough to find berries that haven’t been chilled down, use them within 3 days for best results.
- Look for heirloom varieties. These tend to be smaller and sweeter, and are great eaten out of hand. I love to eat varieties like Sweet Charlie when the stem end is still a little green. At this stage, they offer a cool balance between super sugary and tart.
- Less sweet, firmer varieties are best for making preserves. They hold their shape well when cooked and are capable of taking on more sugar.
Strawberries have an elegant, nuanced persona that for me doesn’t always stand up to strong flavors like mint and chocolate. I think they generally deserve to be the star, but when used in the right fashion, strawberries can complement things like beets and tomatoes.
Strawberries are in season now in Florida until the end of March. In North Carolina, (we’re the fourth largest producer of strawberries in the United States) our season will start in April and last through mid-June.