Last weekend, Ithacans flooded the market, filling canvas totes with loaves of multi-grain bread and wide-mouthed jars of local honey. Shoppers juggled small pots of lemon verbena, just-cut peonies, and cold brew coffees. There were hunters, hunting down unruly bunches of leafy kale, and gatherers, gathering coils of fiddlehead ferns. There were also those, like myself, on a mission, making a beeline for farmers offering pints and quarts of perfect strawberries.
A far cry from pedestrian year ‘round berries, June berries are gem-like, deeply scarlet and freckled, with a shock of green at the stem. So brief is their season, so fragile the fruit, it seems sensible, no, non-negotiable, to cradle the brown paper bags of berries in your arms. Glancing through the market, I was not the only one with a weighty tote bag over my shoulder and two quarts of strawberries in my hands. One would think we were carrying jewels from Harry Winston.
June strawberries struggle to contain their sweetness, each berry bursting with crimson juice with just the slightest touch. They love to stain fingertips, white linen, and gauzy sundresses, not just red, but the deepest of reds. (In food coloring speak, we would dub this ‘Red-Red,’ or ‘Christmas Red,’ or ‘True Red.’) The unmistakable fragrance of the fruit taunts from the back seat of the car, or the floor of the passenger seat where you painstakingly avoid the slightest ankle/berry confrontation for fear of bruising the precious cargo. Every now and again you steal a glance, making sure there are no renegade berries tumbling out of their corrugated confines, no casualties. Should any of the strawberries try to make a run for it, there is no choice but to eat them.
June strawberries always conjure a lengthy stint at a Bucks County farm kitchen, where the only thing separating my workspace from a sun-drenched field ablaze with berries, was a screen door. It also reminds me of carrying flats of local strawberries up a steep flight of concrete stairs, setting them down in a darkened restaurant kitchen, flipping on the fluorescent lights, the radio, and the espresso machine.
My summer workdays have always been filled with fresh strawberries. Sometimes they lounged on lemon-spiked ricotta cheesecake. Often they stood sentinel, snug inside a chocolate lined tart shell, dusted with powdered sugar. A riff on old-fashioned biscuit shortcake proved the most popular; strawberries tucked between slightly warm orange cornmeal biscuits, generously slathered with mascarpone cream. At the end of the shift, all that remained of the strawberries were indelible stains of crimson on a white food service cutting board and on my fingers.
As tempting as it is to toss peak season strawberries into a pie shell, this limited edition fruit is almost too good to subject to an oven. They beg to be eaten out of hand, unadorned, exploding with quintessential strawberry taste. As summer officially rolls into town, I confess to having already experienced the perfect strawberry moment. Last Saturday, in Ithaca, NY, somewhere along Mile Marker 10, or maybe 11, an earnest volunteer from a local cross-country team handed me a slightly warm cup of Gatorade with one hand, and a locally grown strawberry with the other. Certainly the Gatorade wasn't the inspiration I needed. Wrapped up inside that berry was
the joy you feel on the last day of school as summer stretches out before you; a taste that can never be captured within a plastic clamshell.