Thaw berry shortcake

THE man who plays greengrocer and pushes the goodies in our supermarket was ecstatic about strawberries from California in January, but he said they might show a little green on 'em to allow for the long trip to breezy Maine. At the moment the breeze was about 20 knots and about the same below zero. So there! I make two witty responses to California strawberries in January: (1)Green or ripe they taste like California, and (2)$ & . As this greengrocer was making his garrulous pitch on the TV, my partner in strawberry reminiscences looked up from her knitting to say, ``Wonder if he'd know how to dig out camp?'' That's going back before food freezers, and before we knew anything about California strawberries. We had a log cabin then, back a ways, which was meant for summer use; in the winter it could be gained only on foot. And we had just gone through the January thaw. Those were the vigorous days before our weather patterns changed. Snow would build up through Christmas, and then about Twelfthtide we'd get a hot-water rain that wiped away the drifts and left the fields brown and brooks full. A sharp night would then ``button things up,'' and the next day a ``sailor take warning'' sunrise would smear off into a leaden sky and a stir of wind off Nova Scotia and the Gasp'e. Then we'd get a baister that would replace all the snow and more, and winter was renewed. You could count on it, but today the January thaw is a maybe and a may-not. Today, if we got any snowstorm like that, Maine would close every school and the governor would declare an emergency.

Of course, we went to school when we had storms like that. And after that particular one she said the world was so beautiful she'd like to go up to the log cabin and revel in the sight. I had my pack basket with the victuals we'd need and left snowshoe tracks for her to follow later, when she came along with another couple. Thus I'd have time to uncover the door and get the cabin warm.

I found the wind had blown a drift right over the cabin roof, and instead of a path to the door, I had to hollow a tunnel. Hardly strawberry time. Snow is heavy insulation, so when I got inside the place was dark and silent. I lit the Aladdin lamp and wound the clock - setting it by guess. A bit of birch bark brought the cooking range to life, and while the kindlings caught I touched off the fireplace. It was a big fireplace, able to take three-foot sticks, and I loaded it.

So I had things cozy when she arrived with our friends, and from inside the insulated camp I didn't hear them until they tromped through my tunnel. Cozy may be a mild word - the cookstove was jumping up and down and the fireplace draft was sucking at the hearthrug. We left the door open to give us some cool air and the oxygen that came with it. Exclamations were heard about the magnificence of the great snow-covered world, and then we began on our January strawberry shortcake.

Under the cabin we had a root cellar with walls of stone, and it was safe for about everything except potatoes. Potatoes will freeze at a nudge of frost and turn sweet. But apples will stand a few degrees, and the cellar never got cold enough to burst a can or jar. So we'd stock the cellar in the fall, against a winter visit, and the cache included a half dozen quart jars of preserved wild strawberries. I lifted the hatch and went below with a flashlight to hand up a couple of jars. The berries were dumped in a bowl, and the heat from the stove and fireplace went to work to waft the magnificence of a June meadow about our confined retreat - saturating us until we easily heard the lilting tinkle of bobolinks and bees buzzing busily about.

Too many people still believe shortcakes should be made with angel food or some kind of sweet cake, but in Maine we stick with a good, plain cream-tartar biscuit, best made with buttermilk, except we put in a mite more shortening to, well - to make it short. Our kind was now under way, but to save time the dough was patted into the pan in one big biscuit. Halved horizontally, it would be buttered, and anointed with field strawberries in lavish generosity. Four of us, and quartering spared the cutting of small biscuits. We had at it, and then occupied ourselves with sitting by the fireplace until the moon came up and we could tie on our webbing and go home. I filled the lamp and the woodbox before we locked the door - a thoughtful precaution against repeating the pleasure another day.

The greengrocer said the green places on a California strawberry were all right, because in the refrigerator the berries would keep a week. Why would anybody want to keep strawberries a week? But the advertising was over, the news came on, and the weatherman said if we had snow there would be no significant accumulation.

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