Strawberries: It must be summer

By Bruce Stambaugh

If there were a fruity harbinger of summer, the strawberry would be my pick. Here in Ohio’s Amish country, we know it’s summer for sure when the strawberries ripen.

I for one couldn’t be happier. I love strawberries, especially the homegrown ones. They just seem to taste better, are sweeter and juicier than those off-season berries imported from some foreign place like California.

There are many ways to enjoy the delectable little fruit. I can eat these fresh picked strawberries individually by separating them from their pixy green cap, plop them on my cereal, bathe them in a bowl of skim milk or in a fresh strawberry pie.

As good as those all may sound, my favorite strawberry treat is my wife’s incredible shortcake. I pile the ripe berries high on top of this wonderfully textured and even better tasting delight. Save the whipped cream. I use milk on my strawberry shortcake.

Strawberries are summer’s first fruit, an edible sign that there are many more fruitful treasures to come, apples, peaches, pears, raspberries and watermelon to name a few. Perhaps that is the real reason I savor the luscious red berries so much. Strawberry time equals summertime.

Youngsters patiently sit by the roadside with a wagon or small table loaded with quart baskets bulging with fire engine red berries picked just that morning. It usually doesn’t take them long to sell out.

Strawberries, the only fruit with its seeds on the outside, are finicky to grow. In this climate, they have to be almost babied. Strawberries are susceptible to hard winter freezes, late spring frosts that damage the tender blossoms, too much rain, not enough rain, hail, mold and mildew, and hungry birds and critters.

I inherited my love of strawberries from my father. Dad loved to round up as many of his willing offspring as he could and head to a patch often miles away just to save a little money. The berries were cheaper if you picked them.

When we got home, the family fun continued. We helped Mom cap the berries, meaning we removed their contrasting green stem. Mom would sprinkle them with a little sugar, and then pummel them with a potato masher.

That method blended the berries together in a tasty, sweet slurry, half juice, half berries, that we poured over those store-bought round shortcakes. The cakes soaked up the juice like a sponge. We always had the option of adding whipped cream or ice cream to compete the marvelous, well-earned dessert.

Of course, all the berries weren’t eaten fresh. We froze some for later in the year, and made strawberry jam, too. The jam was good, the memories better.

I realize that the benefits of summer go far beyond fresh strawberries. The extended daylight hours more than balance out those long, cold nights of winter.

Just a few warm days strung together, and the three feet of snow that we had in February alone is long forgotten. It is precisely those warm days and nights, coupled with occasional rains that help create a successful strawberry harvest.

I am more than happy that summer weather has arrived. To have strawberries as the season’s first fruit is a delicious bonus.

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