Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Strawberries


By BETTY BELL

I don't know about you, but let's be different and not discuss the me-me-me's running for president. Let's do strawberries—how about memorable berries? You go first, and no whining about waiting for strawberry season—it's always strawberry season—hie yourself off to the market, hang a right and you're at strawberries, and fetching they are in valentine red, bright beacons among dreary mounds of potatoes and onions.

Splurge—buy a quart—get home in a hurry—wrestle off the lid and grab one by the stem—give it a rinse—you dare not—open your mouth—slide your tongue forward as if for communion—now open wider, for these aren't pygmy berries—and give an alligator chomp.

Ecstasy?

Not even close. Everything's perfect except for the taste. In the ADM era strawberries don't do taste. But don't toss them—the price was dear and there may be some vitamin C.

I admit to a "gotcha" piece going here, one I wouldn't have started if I weren't sure my memorable strawberries will easily beat yours.

I found my memorables during the summer I crewed on a tour boat based in Glacier Bay, Alaska—a paid vacation amid primeval forests, glaciers, calving icebergs and emerald waters populated by humpback whales and seals and a myriad of delicious fishes.

Molly and I, during a rare three days off, set out on a true-life canoe adventure. Molly was a fellow employee both calm and wise—life-saving attributes, it came to pass, on the way back when we threw away plan A and hung a left into a beckoning vein of channel that not far along petered into a vastness of capillaries and soon we were lost.

The perfect weather had turned cold and clammy with the ceiling hovering just above our shoulders. I caught hypothermia, if that's how it happens, and calm and wise Molly headed for shore even though I, early-hypothermic goofy, urged that we gamely struggle on. Molly coaxed a driftwood fire into life that was like grease to the Tin Man, and after we roasted for and aft for a spell we got going again and saved ourselves.

It was late the day before the bad day that strawberries starred. We'd beached on a small island, pitched our tent and had a tasty dinner because Molly worked in the kitchen and requisitioned gourmet supplies. After a few hours of darkness, as we finished breakfast we saw seals coming ashore at the far end of the island, and we wormed our way through low-growing foliage to the beach where three mother seals and their pups lay sunning. One mom and her pup were only about 30 feet below where we scrunched among the small plants that—Holy Moses!—turned out to be loaded with strawberries! But not big plump berries like those you just splurged on—these were tiny things.

Dutifully, having resolved to experience all things Alaska, we each plucked one. I pulled mine in with my tongue, squished it against the roof of my mouth, and Lordy, Lordy, pilgrim—such sweetness—an explosion of sweetness that osmosed all through my head. We crammed the little berries into our mouths as fast as we could, and squishing them was like being raptured into sugar heaven. Every 30 seconds or so we held dead still, halted mid-mastication to synchronize with the mother's sweep of her head to see that all was well.

We stripped that patch, didn't worry about leaving some for what we'd figured would be an extremely improbable presence of bears, and then wormed our way back to the canoe to begin our day of getting lost.

I can't imagine that taste will ever again be included in the fetchingly packaged whoppers at the market in this ADM era of huge harvests and low costs—read cheap labor. But it's not true that Americans won't harvest strawberries, bent at the waist a hot 10 or 12 hours a day and picking for a pittance. Of course they will. All we have to do is recruit—subscript—non-violent types locked up for big bucks and doing no good for anyone—say, for instance, the slew of marijuana miscreants.

We'd have to pop for better housing than the present pickers get, and we probably couldn't weasel out of paying for the repair of herniated discs so common to the calling, but hey—the pickers would be bona-fide USAers. At the end of the day though, if it's taste you yearn for, you'll just have to get in your canoe and paddle around looking for strawberry islands.




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