Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Wild Strawberries

Fast forward: The summer of 1959, my parents sent me off to Ironwood, Michigan to spend the entire season with my mother's first cousin. There was a bit of a crisis regarding my aging grandfather which rendered my parents "otherwise occupied". I was not a happy camper with regard to this arrangement. I was a city kid and like most kids, wanted to be with my family and friends during the summer months. Being a country mouse just wasn't my thing (no Marshall Field's!). Mom's cousin, affectionately known as "Beka" was bit on the strict side, to say the least. My mother wasn't much of a disciplinarian and didn't get rattled easily. Life at home was basically, "be home before dark". My father worried - a lot - about this looseness - but mom was in charge and appeared to know what she was doing. Now I was under the thumb of a formidible woman who demanded to know my whereabouts at any given time. I really missed my parents and wanted to go home - and I hated the water, which was rusty all the time. Chicago has really great tap water! Nevertheless, I was in safe and excellent hands - which was the point of the whole engagement. There was one saving grace - the food. As much as I longed for my mom's cooking and baking, Beka was no slouch in the kitchen. While the groceries weren't exotic or cosmopolitan (no Oysters Rockefeller or Crepes Suzette), they were delicious and plentiful.

Beka, being Swedish Lutheran, attended the Lutheran Church every Sunday. Oh yes, I missed being Catholic for the summer, too - and sometimes I was permitted to attend Mass at the local Catholic Parish. Frankly, the Lutheran Church was a better deal. The Lutheran "Ladies Aid" provided many smorgasbords in the church basement, which were extraordinary. These women were in a fierce competition with each other for the best dish and the finest baked goods. Sundays were something to look forward to - sort of an "all-you-can-eat" Swedish banquet. There were Sunday picnics, too - out at Little Girl's Point on Lake Superior - all catered by the Ladies Aid. God knows I never went hungry.

One of the joyous discoveries of my summer in Ironwood were the wild strawberries. Whether these were bona fide wild strawberries, Fragaria virginiana or the cultivated wood strawberries known in France as fraises de bois, F. vesca, I cannot say - as I have very little knowledge of botany. I imagine they were truly wild - at least I'd like to think so, as it makes the whole adventure more romantic. The taste of these tiny berries was indescribable - intense, heavily perfumed, with the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity - more the attributes of a black raspberry. They were not glamorous looking, like the bright red and often huge cultivated strawberries of California. Their flavor, however, was incomparable. Roger Williams, the founder of Providence in 1636 said of the wild strawberry, "...this berry is the wonder of all fruits growing naturally in these parts. It is of itself excellent so that one of the chieftest doctors of England was wont to say that God could have made, but never did make a better berry..."

How often have you purchased some of those California strawberries only to discover they have very little flavor. Sure, they look beautiful as a cake decoration - but they are, in my opinion, a disappointment. According to Elizabeth Riely, author of "A Feast of Fruits", strawberries are best eaten in the patch - lush, juicy, and warm from the sun. Failing a backyard bed or pick-your-own farm, try to find locally grown berries."

Today, we're spoiled. We demand out-of-season and out-of area produce twelve months out of the year. Produce is engineered to be hearty enough to withstand long trips and rough handling - but it isn't necessarily full of flavor. Spinach, berries, and all manner of fruits and vegetables are trucked or flown in from thousands of miles away - setting us up for the possibility of food poisoning. The longer the produce travels, the more time there is for the bacteria to multiply. That summer in Ironwood, I ate every day from Beka's vegetable garden. Let's support the Slow Food movement and eat locally and seasonally (although I'll admit it's hard to be a locavore in the middle of winter in the Midwest). You'll support your local farmers and growers, help reduce carbon emissions, and eat better. If you can hunt down local farmer's markets, the chances of eating organic produce is very high. In the meantime, if you're looking for a place to see the colors of Fall at its best, a trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan will leave you breathless and while you're there, make friends with the Lutherans.

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