Strawberry Summer

Mom was practical and particular in the way she raised us at our cottage on a farm near Omena. My dad was downstate working in Grand Rapids, so most of the time it was just one woman and three little kids. Each morning she wrote out jobs with our names next to them in cursive on a yellow legal pad. Sweep black flies from the windowsills. Sweep porch. Shake rugs. To do this last chore properly, I flapped each rug off the back porch until I heard it snap. After our jobs, the afternoons were ours, hot and carefree.

Her practicality extended to the way we ate. Because fresh food was nourishing and priced fairly, Mom was big on seasonal eating, or, in her words, eating like farmers. Veggies were an eternal presence. Our kitchen wallpaper was a repeating pattern of life-size garden vegetables. When the green beans were green, we ate handfuls of them steamed with melted butter. When the corn was sweet, we’d eat it for dinner, passing the big platter of ears as the main course, and making the typewriter-ding sound to signal the end of each row of kernels we devoured. Being on a cherry farm, we could eat cherries galore, if we picked them ourselves.

We didn’t actually pick the strawberries that week in June when I was 8. My brother, sister and I slid onto the sun-hot vinyl seats of the wood-paneled station wagon, and Mom drove us to the (now-defunct) farmers market just south of Suttons Bay on M-22. We looked the strawberries all over: small but luscious red, with fresh green caps. They came from the Bardenhagen berry farm on Eagle Highway. My mom took a flat: 8 quarts, then two more quarts to grow on.

On the way home the car smelled like jam.

Over the next week, she fed us from the flat. She told us that Michigan fruit is the best. See, she said, while she oversaw me learning how to hull them, Michigan berries are red all the way through. For breakfast we had strawberry milkshakes. Lunch was cold strawberry soup. For snacks, we ate the berries plain with the caps still on, sitting Indian-style in the prickly grass.

She mixed sliced berries with white sugar in the pink speckled melamine bowl and left them in the goldenrod yellow fridge to macerate — the technical term for what we called making juice. She spooned the berries and juice over vanilla ice cream. When the vanilla was gone, we used the peanut butter cup ice cream.

For shortcake, Mom did no rolling, simply made drop biscuits by plunking dollops of dough on the sheet pan. She pulled them from the oven using the comically puny dollhouse-sized potholders we made for her.

She made omelets rolled from the pan with sliced strawberries inside. The omelets were actually kind of good, in the way that berries are good on top of a dish of custard. She put them in chicken salad with celery. We didn’t tell her, but it was tasty.

She stopped just short of strawberry meatloaf. Her practical ingenuity was craziness to us. But, she said, it was one woman and three little kids, and we needed to consume the ten quarts in a week before they molded. That’s the word she used. Consume.

And so the bounty in the green quart boxes seemed to never end, a berry version of the fishes and loaves. Friday night, our dad came honking his horn up the driveway. Outside the moths smacked themselves against the porch light, and beyond the sky bubbled out like a planetarium. And there were still plenty of berries. Dad scooped wedges of ice cream with the flat-paddled scoop. We tuned in to Solid Gold. Hopped up on sugar and berries, my sister and I did an arm-pumping, bum-bumping dance to Three Dog Night.

The weekend meant waffles, crisp ones with thinly sliced berries and maple syrup. But the main event that week was the chilled strawberry pie: made with halved berries, strawberry Jell-O and a drift of just-whipped cream.

And just as quickly as they came, the berries were gone. The runty remainders she eked into freezer jam in the pint Tupperware containers.

A week of strawberries sounds over the top, but in fact it was the opposite.

Mom taught us that Michigan strawberries were special, not to be wasted. They sang of the Leelanau County land they ripened on. It was a gift, this secret week in June when we ate milkshakes for breakfast and my mom made that flat last just as long as it would let her. We learned that when life gives you berries, you eat them.

Emily Betz Tyra is associate editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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