The democracy of strawberries

It's a pity Robert Frost never wrote a paean to the strawberry, the way he did for some of the other New England fruits.

He devoted several pages to the blueberry ("You ought to have seen what I saw on my way/ To the village, through Patterson's pasture today:/ Blueberries as big as the end of your thumb"); wrote masterfully of an apple harvest ("There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,/ Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall"); and gave the bramble fruits passing mention ("I dwell in a lonely house I know/ That vanished many a summer ago,/ And left no trace but the cellar walls,/ And a cellar in which the daylight falls,/ And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow").

I say "New England fruits" because the strawberry is one of a handful that will thrive in the rather unforgiving North, especially in my neck of the woods, central Maine.

In truth, the berries in general fare much better here than the tree fruits, which are basically limited to apples and plums. Raspberries grow in abundance along road cuts, and blackberries stake out their own turf along railroad tracks, while blueberries prefer open, rocky fields along the coast.

Raspberries and blackberries, however, put up a fight in the form of their thorns; and blueberries are largely an industrial purview; so the pursuit of these fruits is not as heated on an individual level.

But the strawberry harvest is thoroughly democratic, inciting interest in Mainers like none of its berry peers. Come late June and into July, farms all up and down the state open their fields to the "You Pick" public.

On the very first day of picking, you can see folks lined up at the gates at the break of dawn, juggling their quart boxes in one arm while holding a squirming toddler in the other. And as the sun rises and spreads its first clean light out over the fields, the gray slowly turns to a dim green.

Eventually, bright red dots appear, countless thousands of them, as if dabbed all at once by a master artist with a lightning brush.

When the gate at long last opens, it's like the Oklahoma land grab: The joy is sheer and pure and determined.

I seldom miss my chance to get down on hands and knees and creep through a plant row at a nearby strawberry farm.

As I crawl along, picking and sampling and filling my quart containers, I feel that I am in a strawberry sea. The fat globes are stark red, some so ripe that they drip and sparkle in the sun, their aroma filling my nostrils, a mere touch bringing them free of their stems.

There are moments when I halt my picking to listen to the conversations of my neighbors, and I realize a solid truth of the strawberry fields: There are no pessimists out here. Spirits are always high, comments always upbeat, laughter always honest and earnest.

I take my strawberries home and share them with friends, washed and hulled and dipped in powdered sugar. Others are more creative with the fruit and are acquainted with all of its permutations.

I have a friend who puts on her own private strawberry festival every year. I went to her house for one such event, and when she opened the door the scent of strawberry washed over me, so potent that my cheeks ached.

Her table was adorned with strawberry shortcake, strawberry tarts, strawberries and cream, strawberry smoothies, and, sitting squat in the middle like an imperial crown, a magnificent strawberry glac pie. It would have been counter to the democratic spirit of strawberry season to favor one over the other, so I partook heartily of each.

Many Mainers who visit the fields do so to augment their incomes. In early July, the roads are studded with makeshift strawberry stands, their proprietors sitting in whatever shade they can find or make, chatting with neighboring vendors or reading a newspaper while waiting for the next customer.

The other day, while thinking of strawberries in this, the very thick of the harvest, I was driving down a road when I saw a man standing next to his pickup, holding out a set of jumper cables and glancing up periodically at gathering storm clouds.

When I stopped and rolled down my window, he looked at me with a hint of embarrassment in his eyes. "Guess I left my parking lights on all day," he said. "Battery's dead."

I pulled alongside him, popped my hood, and within a few minutes we had his engine humming. "Just let her run for a few minutes to recharge the battery," I offered.

As I got back into my car, the man came at me with a quart of strawberries in each hand. "For you," he said.

I waved him off halfheartedly. "I couldn't," I protested, not wanting to accept payment for an act of goodwill. But he insisted, and I relented, taking the quarts and setting them down on the passenger seat.

Some principles won't let a man dwell too long upon them, especially when fresh strawberries are at stake.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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