Strawberry Fields Forever
Summers Sweetest Gift
Photo by Elise Pierce
Just north of Los Angeles in Ventura County, strawberry farmer Bill Reiman is behind the wheel of his white four-wheel-drive GMC pickup truck, driving along the periphery of his 450-acre spread, inspecting his newly planted crops. It’s the first of two yearly plantings that the mild climate of northern California affords Reiman and the state’s other strawberry growers, which make up 88 percent of the nation’s strawberry supply.
“We’re a family farm, but we’ve gotten pretty big over the years,” says Reiman, 41, a fifth-generation farmer whose German immigrant ancestors first settled in the area in the late 1800s. Like his father, he grows strawberries — a proprietary variety for the brand Well-Pict — and, if all goes well, he’ll have 850,000 flats, or 6,800,000 one-pound boxes of juicy, shiny berries to ship in the spring. “People love strawberries,” he says. “People like oranges and bananas, but when you say, ‘strawberries,’ their eyes light up. They’re juicy. They have a unique flavor. I walk through the fields and just eat them off the plants.”
The ability of strawberries to make people stop in their tracks and fall in love has long been the stuff of Cherokee lore. The legend of the strawberry’s origin goes something like this: First Man and First Woman were very much in love, but as the years passed they began to quarrel over petty things. One day, after an especially heated argument, First Woman became so angry that she announced she was leaving and never coming back. First Man didn’t argue or try to convince her to stay — he was tired of her heckling. But the longer First Woman was gone, the more First Man began to worry about his wife.
Soon he realized he was no longer angry — he just wanted his wife to come home safely — but by then she had several days’ head start. So First Man turned to the Sun for help. To entice First Woman to slow down, the Sun caused a patch of ripe blueberries to grow at her feet, but she was undeterred. Next the Sun caused a row of luscious blackberries to grow alongside the path, but the single-minded maiden did not hesitate. The Sun then lined both sides of the path with red raspberries and green-skinned gooseberries, but still she did not slow her journey away from home.
In exasperation, the Sun created a new plant, one covered with fat red berries and fragrant white blossoms, which grew low to the ground and without thorns. The maiden had never seen such a fruit: She suddenly stopped, taking time to examine the oddity. She took a bite — she had never tasted anything so sweet — and her anger began to melt away. Long story short, First Woman returned to First Man with a skirt filled with ani, the Cherokee word for strawberries, and even though the couple still had their moments in the years to come, whenever tempers started to flare they would share the heart-shaped fruit and be reminded of their enduring love.
Not only good for anger abatement and relationship patching, strawberries are just plain good for you. They’re low in calories and rich in potassium, folate, and fiber, along with vitamin C, which may be why people have been eating them since Roman times. Throughout history, the heart-shaped, seeds-on-the-outside berry was thought to be a cure-all of sorts — it was prescribed for everything from sunburn and discolored teeth to good digestion and gout.
As kids growing up in north Texas, we ate strawberries simply because they tasted good, even though they required a lot of on-our-knees work. We’d start saving our empty red-and-white Elsie the Borden cow milk cartons each January so we’d have plenty to take to my grandfather’s strawberry patch outside of Ardmore, Oklahoma, when it was time to pick the berries. We’d fill carton after carton, then line them up on my grandparents’ front porch for the neighbors to come and take home.
In California, farmers like Reiman are working year-round to produce better, sweeter-tasting berries than ever before. Between the crops grown in the southern part of the state and those grown in the north, they’re picking and shipping berries around the country throughout the year. So whatever the time of year, there’s little excuse these days for losing your temper — just pick up a juicy berry, savor a sweet bite, and relish the time you spend with the ones you love.
Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef. Read her blog and watch her cooking videos at www.cowgirlchef.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cowgirlchef