MARTHA SEZ: ‘Was it only nostalgia … that made me miss the berries from the vacant lot?’
Strawberry season! My favorite time of year. In my mind strawberries are inseparable from childhood memories of foraging in Michigan fields and woodlands with my grandfather, learning about bugs and other wild creatures from rabbits to mud turtles, about wildflowers and, of course, wild strawberries.
In June, I would take a bowl or a basket to the vacant lot near our house, where I spent peaceful, solitary afternoons picking berries. Those I didn’t eat I brought home to my grandmother, Rosie. She taught me how to bake.
The vacant lot is long gone. Today, large houses–spacious homes as the realtors would call them–stand where my brothers and sister and I once played. Little do the residents know of the strawberries or the fox hole my brother Bill once dug and then artfully camouflaged with brush, hopeful that someone would blunder along and fall in.
I loved to lie in the tall, sweet-smelling grass, observing insects as they went about their errands among the stalks, watching clouds change shape in the sky, ignoring distant calls for me to come finish my chores.
Once, angry over some now forgotten outrage committed, no doubt, by my mother, I gathered a nightgown, a blanket, a pillow, some carrots and a sandwich and piled them into the equivalent of a little red wagon, only it was made of metal, and adorned with a springing greyhound. I pulled this wagon to the vacant lot, where I intended to live from that day forward under a neighbor’s picnic table. Eventually Granddad showed up, as if by chance, and we walked home together, hand in hand, Granddad pulling the wagon.
When I was growing up, my mother told me that to buy a pint of strawberries out of season was an extravagance–if such a luxury could be obtained at all. The improvident housewife who succumbed to temptation, longing for the sweet ripe fruit of summer, was bound to be disappointed. Berries tough enough to withstand the perils of long-distance shipping from warmer climes were hard and lacked the true, intense flavor and color of homegrown berries. Instead, they bore an unfortunate resemblance to cardboard.
Now, strawberries are ubiquitous in supermarkets year-round all over the United States. Next time you see a package in the grocery store, you will almost certainly spy the word “Driscoll’s” on the label. Driscoll’s, now in its fourth generation, is the world’s largest strawberry breeder and grower.
Was it only nostalgia, or memories formed when my tastebuds were young, that made me miss the berries from the vacant lot? Maybe not.
Recently, I found a 2017 “New Yorker” article by Dana Goodyear titled “How Driscoll’s Reinvented the Strawberry.”
“Driscoll’s berries tend to lack the sugar rush and perfumed oomph of a tiny sun-warmed heirloom discovered on a country lane. Since the company’s inception, it has placed an emphasis on appearance,” Goodyear wrote.
Driscoll’s berries are uniformly large and heart-shaped, picked unripe. They also lack a chemical, methyl anthranilate, naturally present in wild strawberries.
Now, in the North Country, excellent strawberries can be found at farmer’s markets, farms and roadside stands. While you may see a variety of breeds, they tend to be smaller than Driscoll’s, and more likely to have some of that authentic strawberry flavor.
Rosie taught me to make strawberry shortcake, and helped me to understand fractions and measurements along the way.
Three parts flour to one cup shortening for pie crust; half that amount of shortening if you are making biscuits. No pastry cutter to cut the shortening into the flour? Two knives, one held in each hand, will do.
For biscuit dough, if you use two cups of flour, stir in a teaspoon of salt and three to four teaspoons of baking powder. Cut in one third cup of shortening, butter or lard. (Rosie used Crisco instead of lard. If someone had suggested lard she would have said “Mercy!”) Use just enough milk or buttermilk to make a malleable dough, which you can pat out and cut into circles with a floured drinking glass rim or cookie cutter.
“Don’t toughen up your dough!” Rosie cautioned.
If you add too much milk, you can drop the dough onto your skillet or baking sheet by spoonfuls. Bake at 400 degrees until browned. Pour hulled, sliced strawberries previously sweetened with sugar over the sliced biscuits.
Rosie had nothing against Bisquick either.
Note: A Driscoll’s berry is definitely better than none!
Whipped cream is good.
Have a good week.