I like berries a lot. I grew up with fresh strawberries and raspberries from the garden. The tasteless, cardboard berries at the store were pointless in my family; berries were worth growing and savoring in season, with the excess frozen or made into jam.
Which is why last year we put in two 18 ft rows of raspberries and 24 sq ft of strawberries. Neither produced much the first year, as expected, but I knew their time would come. All winter I looked forward to having second-year producing berries. The cool weather has held the strawberries back pretty hard, but we’re now getting raspberries by the bowlful, enough that we don’t have to fight over them — much.
Still, I’ve been interested in the idea of visiting a U-pick place for berries as well. After all, the ideal quantity of berries that I would consume and preserve in a season would be measured in body-weights — far more than we could produce on our lot. Perhaps, I thought as the long winter passed, I could supplement what we grew ourselves with some U-pick berries for big projects like jam. In tired moments, when the work of the household seemed to loom impossibly large, I even considered the idea of ripping out the berries and just supplying ourselves from U-pick entirely.
Last week I had a perfect opportunity to dip my toes into the U-pick water. I met two other mothers and their young kids (both about Nathan’s age) at a U-pick place about half an hour from our house. I’d been anticipating the excursion for weeks. I envisioned bringing home buckets, mountains of berries — berries for jam, for freezing, for tarts, and of course for fresh eating with every meal of the day.
But when we entered the field, and one of the other mothers started to pick, I poked around for a minute and then took my kids a bit farther in. The area we were in had clearly already been picked over.
My early memories are full of Dad’s voice saying “Don’t pick them unless they’re really red, all over.” Not orange-y red, not red just on the sunny side, but really red all over. This lesson is now deeply ingrained. I find myself saying the same thing to Nathan, and probably despairing in exactly the same way as my dad did about him ever getting the concept through his head. Can’t he tell how much better berries are when they’re really ripe? Can’t he see that it’s worth it to wait?
For a two year old, living deeply in the Now, it probably isn’t worth it.
After further exploration of the field, I was forced to conclude that I was wrong — the area I had first looked at hadn’t been picked over. Or rather, it had — the day before. By people who had not, growing up, had my dad looking over their shoulder telling them to pick only the really, really red ones; by people who had quite possibly gotten their strawberries from the grocery store for most of their lives, where they’re all under-ripe because a truly ripe strawberry must be used almost immediately, as it neither ships nor stores well.
It was then that I discovered that I’m a berry snob. I’m a snob about a lot of food — I know it, and I’ve tried not to be, but I grew up with parents who grew a big garden and cooked from scratch and valued really good food. My dad once came home from a business trip and spent days recreating a dish he’d had, eventually coming up with a superb recipe for Chicken Marsala which has totally spoiled me for any dish by that name that I’ve had in a restaurant, because they’re all terribly inferior. I point all this out in my own defense. Is it really surprising that I’ve ended up being a food snob?
But back to the strawberries. I hadn’t realized that I was a berry snob, but now that I knew it, I still wanted to make the best of the situation. I consider myself a decently efficient berry-picker, thanks to practice. I worked my way through four long rows of strawberry plants, but it was only by being very meticulous, taking berries sitting on the dirt (which previous pickers seemed to have been biased against), and ignoring the Dad-voice in my head a little that I was able to come up with about two pounds of berries. I considered shifting gears and picking the Cascade Dawn raspberries, which didn’t look nearly so badly picked, but when I tasted a few of them, I found them, in comparison to the ones growing in our back yard, rather bland. No berry should be bland, but especially not a raspberry. Raspberries should be sweet and tangy, full of zip and vigor and joy, like a really good salsa dancer.
So I took the four kids off to see the goats instead. Watching their enjoyment, teaching them to poke bits of grass through the fence for the goats to eat… that was more fun anyway. The other mothers, who left with a heaping bucket of strawberries and half a bucket of raspberries each, thankfully didn’t ask about my paltry take.
When I got home I went out to our strawberry patch and hunted up a few choice morsels that were really, truly ripe, to do a taste test against the slightly orange-y ones I’d come back with. And I’m sorry, but my dad was right. An under-ripe strawberry is better than no strawberry at all, but one that’s fully ripe, warm from the sun, is the kind of wonderful that simply can’t be eaten casually. You can smell it before you get it to your mouth, an echo of the flavors you’re about to experience. It’s so rich with juice that you can crush it with your tongue, and there’s none of the sharpness of the under-ripe berry — it’s round and dulcet, but still sprightly, almost overwhelmingly fragrant and intoxicatingly sweet.
It is so, so worth it for us to grow our own berries.