Deborah Paul Wants the Ripe Stuff

I prefer fresh, especially at harvest time.

ll summer long, I have boycotted supermarket strawberries, especially any packaged in a clear plastic container. You see, those berries taste like Styrofoam. I won’t swear to that, given that I’ve never consumed Styrofoam, but I imagine the two share common traits, including white spongy centers. I suspect those berries are picked before their time and spend too many weeks in refrigerated transport.

The last time we enjoyed good strawberries was when we picked them ourselves. Our granddaughter Clara, then 3, trudged through bounteous fields with us on a farm in Michigan, jamming the fresh berries into her mouth. The cashier did not charge us extra when she saw the smeared red stains on Clara’s hands and face. A cute kid loving the merchandise is about as good an advertisement as a business can get.

I don’t know where my mother purchased her berries, but they were no bigger than your thumb and red, with stems. She would remove the cores with a sharp paring knife and mash them with the underside of a fork. Then she added a quick pour of heavy cream and a dusting of confectioners’ sugar. We’d eat the delectable concoction in a shallow bowl with a spoon.

It’s no wonder I favor the fresh stuff, especially at harvest time, given that I grew up in a family of gardeners. Because Grandma Bilker and her kin owned a gourmet market in Cincinnati, good food was paramount in their household. I spent many hours of our frequent visits in her breakfast room, where, through the expansive picture window, we had an unmatched view of her vegetable garden. It appeared to be an entire farm, and I don’t think my perspective was skewed by my tender age. The huge fenced-in plot had healthy plants growing in straight rows, including an abundance of tomato plants attached to posts with nylon stockings. Even in her elderly years, Grandma would tread carefully in the soft dirt, straightening errant vines; admiring her yield; picking a ripe cucumber, pepper, or tomato. Because they were a family of means, Grandma employed a gardener to plant and care for the crops. Still, it was her direction, her meticulousness, her love of growing things that guaranteed success.

I don’t want anything grown upside-down in a hothouse. I want Mom’s.

Mom followed in Grandma’s footsteps, although the horticultural tasks fell to her alone. Our backyard garden in Indianapolis had a chicken-wire fence, neat rows, and leafy tomato plants also secured with torn hosiery. On late-summer days, Dad would pluck a perfectly round, red beefsteak tomato, warm from the sun, and eat it right on the spot, as if it were an apple. Like Mom’s strawberries, her tomatoes were meaty, as red inside as out, and actually tasted like tomatoes. No offense to our neighbors in Mexico or Chile, but I don’t want their produce, or anything grown upside-down in a hothouse. I want Mom’s.

My in-laws, Sophia and Alfred, were as into gardening as my own parents; their crops spanned the width of their property and some years even included Indiana corn. They competed with relatives next door, one-upping each other with the variety and quality of their yield. At every visit, Alfred would cajole my family into walking the perimeter of his yard, tirelessly describing the life cycle of each plant while boasting of every bud, leaf, and vine. We rolled our eyes in boredom, but, like the lazy dog, sleepy cat, and noisy yellow duck in The Little Red Hen, we were nevertheless eager to partake of the season-end bounty. I chopped the salad vegetables and simmered fragrant stuffed green peppers in a Dutch oven for comfort-food suppers. Sophia pickled her cucumbers with garlic and dill, and slow-cooked her homegrown green beans and tomatoes with onions and a few hunks of chuck roast. Tastes like those, you don’t forget.

These days, the glorious U-pick farms near our Michigan cottage are the closest we come to sampling fresh specialties. Flourishing blueberry bushes are everywhere, their midsummer profusion visible from the road. We go crazy, hauling away more than we could ever consume. There are only so many pancakes and muffins a person can bake, although life gets no better than when the berries pop and ooze into the bubbling batter and sweet aromas fill the kitchen. One summer, I froze batches of them, only to pitch the whole lot upon defrosting. Mushy frozen fruit doesn’t hold a candle to the ripe-and-ready variety.

My sister and her husband visit us every year during black-raspberry season, and my brother-in-law shows no shame in eating the berries straight from the cardboard box. The memories of his childhood in Shelbyville, where he savored the natural treat with milk poured on top, are likely as sweet as the berries themselves.

We’re nearing apple time in the Midwest, and that harvest might be the most fun of all. At our favorite orchard, a friendly host wields a sharp knife over trays of in-season apples, slicing off wedges for patrons to sample. The orchard provides wagons, into which we load bags and bags of varieties we’ve previewed upfront. Who knew the greenish-yellow Mutsu could be so sharply sweet, or the smooth-skinned, yellow Blondee so crunchy? Long stays in refrigerator crisper drawers and warehouses do fruit a disservice. Once the season has passed, I give up and wait for the next fall.

I like remembering Mom in her garden. I can still picture the muddy spades and trowels in our garage and visualize the crop-laden bushel baskets Dad hoisted inside our home. Often, when I remove a fork from my kitchen drawer, I yearn to mash a soft, red strawberry. The best I can do is appreciate what the Earth provides when it provides it, and make sure my grandchildren learn to do the same.

Email Deborah Paul here.