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05 July, 2010


After lunch on July 4th, I rounded up the girls and we went to the edge of town to a strawberry farm. One of those U-pick places, which every time I hear about make me think it must be run by the Yupik people, but there were none to be seen. You park, you pick up baskets. you go into the field where a girl points out your row. I felt like the guy at the stand insulted me by asking if I wanted just one basket. Like what, my girls cannot pick? You think I'm some yutz out here for a photo op, some family event bagged for the bragging in a christmas letter later?

Turned out that no, he didn't. It was just that I'd happened to arrive during the last hour of picking before they turned loose the commercial pickers. Out in the field, the row boss saw right off that we were there to pick, there to fill up a couple boxes. Apparently, my 5-year-old is a mighty picker for her age.

Most of the season, they put people on a row of lush plants that can absorb the collateral damage of toddling beginners and their bumbling parents. They eat some, they drop a lot, they seek out the biggest fruit and bring a pound or two home, where they discover another few ounces stuffed into one of the kids' underwear.

Since we were interested in jam-worthy quantities, and since we were able to pick the ripe without destroying the not yet, the row boss gave us a corner full of a small local variety. We raked in the clusters hanging out in the open. Swept one hand through leaves and picked with the other. Plucked and snagged and hooked. Hundreds of nickel-sized berries piling up.

The little ones are nice for jam: no need to cut, red-ripe through and through, full o flavor. Not necessarily big and photogenic, but then, I'm looking for sustenance and substance, not a politician.

I'm not a survivalist or a millenialist, not a farmer or feeder or families, but getting off the food grid, where everything arrives from somewhere else and tastes the same,...well that I like. Jam of our own (I swore to the kids we will do something in addition to strawberry this year, since they spent the last year with nothing but that) is a step in that direction. That leaves me about 1800 calories per day short of sustaining myself most of the year, and my summer garden is way too small to provide food enough for canning.

My grandmothers, born over 100 years ago, canned a lot of what they ate, but buying food eventually got too convenient, and one had to spend her days in a textile mill, which monopolizes the day with wages-earning and weariness. Still, I remember trips to the basement, shelves lined with jars of beans and beets, pickles and tomatoes. The trip from field to shelf to kitchen was a few dozen feet.

My mom continued some of that. We canned tomatoes and pickles a few times. Mostly because there were too many tomatoes and cukes, but partly because they tasted better just knowing we had grown them (and partly because we tended them well and didn't put them in a truck for days and a shelf for months). Buy a can, and you miss the rich steamy aroma, the satisfaction wrung from a hot tomato peeled without burning your fingers, the ritual steps that yield a proper pickle.

Buy the can, and never know where the stuff came from. Maybe the risk of cantamination is lower these days, but you have no idea what was sprayed on them beans, what campesino lost his familia farm and spent his days picking this for a corporation. Buy the can and get the same dull product time and again; it is uncanny for vegetables to be so uniform.

Dry it, freeze it, or can it yourself--especially if you grew or picked it yourself--and you can taste the life. You can walk again through that strawberry field, make it last forever.

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