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When Owen, selected strawberries as the Paper Chef seasonal ingredient last weekend.  I was a little disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong!  I love strawberries and my history with them goes w-a-a-a-y back.  It’s just that I hold off eating/buying them until the local strawberries are available. 

I’m going to admit right now that I am extremely haphazard in my thinking and actions and, in many ways, it makes no sense at all, but there are some fruits and vegetables I just want to eat only when they are truly in season. I’ll eat asparagus, for instance, any time I can get them.  But corn, apricots and strawberries – to name a few- are things I only eat in season.  

Besides the fact that local strawberries just plain taste better they are also the ultimate sign that summer is here for me.  When I was very young we didn’t have strawberries on our property but we would go out every June and "U-Pick" from local fields just outside of Salem.  We’d normally pick them early in the morning and then come home and immediately make jars and jars of beautiful strawberry jam.  And, of course, lots would be saved for strawberry shortcake that we’d eat over the next couple days. 

The summer I was 11(or 11½, as I’m sure I would have said then) I begged my parents to let me pick strawberries as a summer job.  You see, that’s what most of the kids in Salem did to earn some cash in the summer.  You weren’t allowed in the fields until you were 12 unless you had an older sibling who would watch over you.  Well, I was the oldest so I didn’t have an older sibling, yet it was really important to me to be out there.  I’ve always been young for my school grade because I have an October birthday.  So that year all my friends were going to pick.  I begged until one day my mom worked a deal with one of our babysitters, Jane.  She was 14 or 15 at the time and agreed to act as my older sibling.  She was the youngest in her family and I think she thought it was fun to have a "little sister" to bring along.  I was so excited. 

We were up and on the bus prior to sunrise and would get to the fields just as the sun was coming up over the Cascade Mountains.  I lucked out because Jane worked at the best farm in the area.  It was a smaller, family-run farm, owned by the Fordyces.  I still remember Norma Fordyce – she was such a nice lady!  The Fordyces were great people and did all kinds of special things for us.  First, they paid more than the bigger farms.  I think at the time I made 55¢ a crate, sometimes called a flat.  Crates were made up of 12 hallocks: little square boxes that held a pint of berries.  If you picked every day of the season you’d get a bonus of 5¢ on every crate you had picked over the season.  We picked six days as week, rain or shine, as long as there were berries. In fact, if rain were expected we might pick a little longer the day prior since rain will rot ripe berries.  The season ran from early June to early July.  On really hot days, they’d bring out barrels of pop for us and on Saturdays there were always candy bars! :-)  If we picked on the 4th of July you got paid double and if you didn’t pick that day they didn’t hold it against your bonus. 

The Fordyces had good fields and good berries, too.  Strawberry plants only produce for about three years and then need to be replaced, at least commercially.  They will actually produce for a really long time but after three years, the berries start getting really small and seedy.  You can keep them longer in a home garden because they send out new little plants each year and by encouraging those you are always getting berries from younger plants but that’s not feasible in a commercial operation.  Some growers would try to get an extra year out of their plants, but the Fordyces replanted their fields on a planned rotation and they were always trying the latest and greatest varieties.  One year we had a field with berries that were so large you could only get about three in a hallock! 

I picked up through the summer I was 15.  It was a great way to make money back then – especially if you became a "good" picker.  I was a decent picker – not one of the elite top echelon – but close.  Most days I could pick over two crates an hour and when the berries were really good I’d do three – so that was between $1.20 and $1.80 an hour!  We felt so rich!  (For comparison sake, I also babysat during this time and the going rate was 50¢  an hour, with a little tip if you were lucky.)

Picking was also a very social event and with the bonus that the social circles and cliques from school were suspended while you were in the fields.  You might start the morning picking with your friends but, inevitably, someone would get done with their row faster and they might choose to help finish off their friend’s row but if the berries were perceived to be better in the next section they might just move on.  And even if you always picked with a friend or two, the people around you were always changing.  The social order was determined by speed – the fastest pickers were king/queen of the fields and they would often pick together to help keep the rhythm and competition up. 

One of the fastest kids was a boy named Danny Bauer.  He was a year ahead of me in school and I thought he was so cute!  I knew he liked me, too, because he’d always throw berries at me.  :-) Throwing berries was, of course, discouraged but the row bosses would let us get a little in before warning us to "cut it out"!  But most days we’d come home with our clothes and bodies covered in red splotches.  Our hands were always stained with the red juice that would turn to purple-black by the end of the day.  Sometimes we’d use lemon juice to try to remove the stains but mostly we just wore those dark fingers as a badge of honor.  You had to pick with bare hands since you really need to feel the berries and because we stemmed them as we picked.  You needed a thumbnail or to be able to really pinch the stems with your thumb and forefinger to cleanly remove the berry from the stem.

By the time I quit picking "professionally" my family had moved to their current acre+ property and had planted several rows of berries.  These would be picked and frozen or made into jam throughout the season.  I still prefer the early berries, as opposed to the ever-bearing, as I think they have better flavor.  And that is what I have planted in my yard today.  

Last year I actually tore all my berries out.  They have a tendency to take over the yard if you let them.  For the first couple of years I kept the runners in line but eventually lost the battle.  Since I have a small yard I had planted berries as borders in other flower beds but they began choking out all my other plantings so I pulled them out intending to replant.  Well, I didn’t get around to replanting last year but I missed a few of the errant runners and so this year I have plants all over the place again! And I am so happy about that.  I have a few ripe berries on the plants now – I ate my first two yesterday!  And in the next couple weeks lots of them will ripen.  I’m so excited!  I have berries that are specifically suited to the Northwest, Raniers and Hoods, named after two commanding peaks in the Cascades.  They are so, so sweet and will be red all the way through and from tip to stem.  I’m really looking forward to that first bowl of fresh, sliced berries with just a little whip cream.  Yum!

So you see, strawberries mean a little more to me than just being another fruit in the market.  They are part of what made me who I am.  I learned a lot about responsibility,  earning my way and the rewards of sticking with something, during those early summers in the commercial fields.  I learned about treating workers with respect and how to work with all kinds of people who you might not otherwise encounter.  Since my parents encouraged me but never forced me I had to do my own planning and preparation each day.  You have to be pretty organized when you have to be up and out the door prior to 6:00 am!  There were a lot of lessons that guide me today.

So strawberries are a ritual and a reminder.  And you don’t want all of that tied up with just any old berry!



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