[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
We feared that we’d missed out on fresh strawberries this year, both because there was an early April freeze and snowstorm that killed off the (admittedly meager) supply of strawberries that our own bushes supply us with, and because we were gone to visit family at a reunion in Ohio over Memorial Day weekend, which has been the traditional date for our pilgrimage to a local strawberry patch. Fortunately, after a couple of phone calls to check up on farmers that have been a reliable source to us in the past, this past Friday my wife and I grabbed the kids, and headed a few miles south, to Haysville, Kansas, and Sargeant’s Berry Farm. It was time to stock up for the year.
They’re good people, the Sargeants. Though they’ve opened their farm up to city-slickers like myself, who arrive from Wichita and elsewhere in our cars and minivans, parking all over their driveway, and have allowed us–for a reasonable fee, of course–the pleasure of picking our own strawberries, blackberries, peaches, and much more from the land they’ve done the hard work to tend for a couple of generations, they’ve always been supportive and polite as they’ve answered our (no doubt often ignorant) questions about what was in season or the best way to transport and preserve this or that fruit or vegetable. They have dogs and cats, which my daughters love to play around with, and Mr. Sargeant drives customers in a modified trailer out the to fields to do the picking, which my girls to chase after. I’m glad they have so much fun out there, because I want them to grow up thinking that what we do every spring and summer in making these trips is important. Which, of course, it is, but you know how it is teaching children to do something on behalf of the future…even something as initially entertaining but as quickly tiring as getting down on your knees and picking strawberries off the bush.
My wife was trained well in the value of fresh fruit, in canning it and preserving it, in making plans year after year for stocking up. I, to my regret, was not. I was blessed with a youth that put me in close proximity to much that was agricultural–bailing hay in the alfalfa fields, milking cows in summer heat and winter cold, and so forth–but I fear that many of the basic virtues and practices of gardening eluded my parents. We grew potatoes and corn and onions, and that was about it; we did our occasional service harvesting raspberries and asparagus on a church farms, but we never did anything with them ourselves. And our daily diet–supplemented by the ready supply of protein available in conjunction with my father’s work with ranchers at the feed store his own father had started back in 1938–was classical postwar middle-class American…which meant, garden or no garden, just about everything we ate came from a can. We weren’t very open-minded or exploratory in our eating; I’m fairly certain that I hadn’t ever so much as taken a bite out of a fresh strawberry, much less ever picked one, until Melissa and I had been married for a couple of years.
Well, she trained me, and while she still runs our yearly Fox Family Canning Operation, I’ve learned the food value of the strawberry. Jam, of course, but also ice cream, fruit salads, smoothies, strawberry pie, and more. For years, it’s just been Melissa and I at the sink, cutting the tops off the fresh berries, washing them, mashing them and boiling them down, filling the jars (not forgetting to add the right amount of pectin; we did one year, and that was a catastrophe) then processing them in a big steaming pot. This year, though, we not only had the occasional assistance of our oldest three girls in the actual picking (Kristen, who is only three, had to be stopped from occasionally popping an unripe or rotten strawberry into her mouth), but the assistance of our oldest daughter, now 12, at the stove as well. With her help, the whole hot and messy process went much smoother than we’d expected that morning.
We usually aim to preserve 20 to 30 jars of strawberries a year–I think we had 21, this time; the Sargeants confessed that, because of the early spring snowstorm and all the cool, rainy days, they didn’t think this had been a very good year, but it’s not like suburbanites like ourselves have much to complain about. Besides, half of the fun is simply going out to the farm, and seeing the crops grow, and talking with others who are looking to add to their diet and support a better way of eating and using land the same way we are. This year, we ended up picking alongside a woman from Augusta, who told us all about she chickens she keeps, and how much better her garden is doing with the chicken manure she’s able to till into the soil. Something to keep in mind, as our efforts to plant ourselves–not just literally, but also economically and socially and environmentally–ever more deeply into the local Kansas soil continue.
Strawberries are only the first of several waves of canning that we’ll be doing over the summer and early fall; there will be peaches, pears (if we can find them; fewer and fewer orchards have pear trees available for the picking these days, especially in our region of the country), apples (Melissa has just about sworn off using butter in her baking entirely, preferring to use applesauce, though processing apples is definitely not an easy job), cucumbers (these will come from our own garden–we think we’ve come up with a good dill pickle recipe, to go along with our regular bread-and-butter ones) and my favorite, salsa–it’s a mess, I know, but cutting up the peppers and onions, and estimating the thickness of the tomato puree, experimenting with one or another ingredient to throw into this year’s batch (extra cilantro? a touch of cumin?)…well, it’s fun.
Of course, the best kind of fun is when you know that the pleasure you’re getting from the work you’re doing and the company you’re keeping is connected to doing something right, and canning is exactly that. It’s a way to be right–or, at least, to get oneself more right–with the world around you, the natural and the socio-economic world. This planet, assuming we do our jobs as stewards of it well (or, at the very minimum, give appropriate praise and support to those like the Sargeants who do it even better), will provide us with a bounty, a bounty that we can delight in but also set aside, to keep us nourished in the cold months to come….and, more broadly, to keep us aware of the fragility of, and transitory condition of, and promise of renewal of, all forms of bounty, which is lesson difficult to learn (and even harder to teach to children!) when one’s food mostly all comes from cans sold at the same place, year in and year out. The old slogan from World Wars I and II referred to the small garden plots that people developed to lessen their dependence upon the national food supply as “victory gardens”; that’s a locution worth keeping in mind today. And not just for gardens. Amongst many of my co-religionists, Melissa and I are mere small-timers, dilettantes really, in the business of canning and food storage, but as far as I’m concerned, as good as I sometimes feel about my arguments and writings here and elsewhere in regards to political and philosophical matters local and communal, I never feel more of a “victory” than come the days of autumn, when I can go down in the basement laundry room, and see jars and jars of preserves, providing my family some shelter from the storm. Strawberry fields forever, indeed.