Strawberry Fields Forever

Written by Lydia Benedict.

I grew up in a big family of nine children. We religiously planted a large garden every summer to supplement our food. The ritual began with my dad making the necessary repairs to the old rototiller. Then he walked slowly from one side of the garden to the other, gripping the handles of the machine like the reins of spirited horse kicking up dirt in its wake. The musty smell of freshly tilled soil called to me and like a new military recruit, I stepped in line behind my dad, marching to the rhythm of the earth.

Today, with my own children, I mark the beginning of summer with strawberry season. Since my strawberry patch is not large enough to supply my family needs, we gather our buckets and head to a nearby farm to pick. Upon reaching the strawberry field, I study the patch momentarily. Bright, red berries peek out from under their umbrella of green foliage. Runners creep out from their mother plants, obscuring what were once neat rows.

I grab a bucket, bend over, and begin working from one side of the patch, my son Tennyson working from the opposite side. I step gingerly, searching for a foothold free of berries. The musical sound of the berries being pulled from the stem is like a single harp string plucked... and then another and another. I pick a perfect berry and—removing its hull—pop it in my mouth. I have missed its light, sweetness for a year and it nearly seduces me to sit down in the middle of the strawberry patch and make a meal solely of strawberries.

Sadly, in the conventional food industry, strawberries top the list of pesticide-sprayed produce. And while we may condemn the overuse of pesticides, how often do we as consumers expect our strawberries (and other produce) to have a blemish-free appearance? We need to understand that perfect produce comes with a price tag. Though the jury is still out regarding the effect of pesticides on our food, increasingly the research points to a link between pesticides and cancer. With the stakes so high, I don't wait for the jury deliberation to end. I pick my own strawberries where I know they haven't been sprayed, even if that means harvesting berries that appear less perfect than their conventional counterparts.

Hours later, Tennyson and I arrive home with boxes heaped with strawberries, hands stained red, and faces satisfied that we had found gold. But gold or not, these berries would begin to mold and rot in a matter of hours. In order to preserve our treasure, we make our berries into jam.

And so our assembly line begins: wash each berry, remove the hull and drop the berry into a big pot. Hours later, the boxes are empty...but the pot is full. Examining the beauty of the berry-filled pot, I hesitate a moment before mashing the fruit. Taking caution not to burn it, Tennyson and then take turns stirring the pot of strawberry puree until it reaches a boil. We watch as the sugar and pectin disappear into the pot with each stir of the wooden spoon. Finally we are ready for the jars. Carefully removing a hot jar from the oven, my son spoons in the strawberry mixture. I wipe down the rim, fish a canning lid from a boiling pan of water, and place it on the rim of the jar, snugly screwing down a canning ring. Once seven jars are filled, they are lowered into the water boiler for the final step.

At the end of the day, row after row of jam-filled jars cool on the countertop. The ping of the sealing lids is music to my ears—like a xylophone lightly tapped at the end of a Concerto—its tone lingering in my mind long after the note has ended. It has been a magnificent production: strawberry fields forever...or at least until next year.