June is strawberry season in Western New York. In my family picking strawberries – or pickin’ berries, as we like to say – was an annual, much-anticipated event when I was a kid. My dad loves all kinds of fruit, especially if it was fresh picked and even better if you could pick it yourself.
Every June around Father’s Day we would head down to Eden or Concord with our quart baskets and hit the strawberry fields. Back then there were so many fields to choose from. The pickin’ was easy, and the price couldn’t be beat. You could pick your own berries for around 25 cents a quart.
There were rules, of course: First you had to stay in the row that the “starter” (often the owners of the field or one of their children) put you in; and second, don’t step on the plants. Sometimes I think the field owners were a bit hesitant about letting my sisters and me pick by ourselves when we were really little, but my dad would say, “They’ve been pickin’ before so they know what to do.” I can remember my younger sister being only 6 or 7 years old and having her own row to pick. I’m sure there were other rules, but those stand out in my mind all these years.
My dad had a couple of “tips” for us: “Pile that basket nice and high so you get more for your money.” He also would remind us when we thought we were finished with our row, to make sure we had picked the plants clean. He would come down our rows to check and make sure we picked all the berries that were ready for picking. If he found any still on the plants, he’d say “You left some behind. These are good berries. Don’t leave ’em on the plants for somebody else.” Then he would check to make sure our baskets were properly “heaped.”
There also was an unspoken rule: Do not eat the strawberries while you picked them or before they could be washed. Just try not eating a big, red, ripe strawberry that smells so delicious right off the plant. I’d look over and see my mom or dad or one of my sisters pop a couple into their mouths and I just had to have one, too – just to make sure they were good. They were always good and that one taste made you want another one.
We would pay for our harvest and put them in the trunk, the smell of strawberries filling the car for the ride home. We couldn’t wait to eat as many as we could before my mother would say, “If you eat anymore today you’ll have a bellyache tonight.” Once home my mom would wash a quart or two and put them out – “just for eating, as is.” Then she would cut up a couple of quarts add a little sugar and water, put the bowl in the refrigerator and we’d have berries to put over vanilla ice cream with Cool Whip on top or on our cereal. Then it was time to make freezer jam with the rest. That freezer jam was the best – we loved it as kids and it became a favorite with our own children, too. We usually would have just enough to last until the following season.
The crop all depended on the weather. Some years the berries were so plentiful you hardly had to move down your row to fill a basket. Those years we probably ate more than we put in our baskets. Off years they’d be tough to find and we would hardly eat any to make sure we had enough to heap the basket.
It’s hard to find the U-pick fields anymore. My dad will still head down to some of the old places to see if they have any fields open.
Nowadays, the price of a quart of strawberries is closer to $5 already picked at the farmers markets, a far cry from 25 cents. I’ll shell out the $5 two or three times a season just to taste that sweet goodness of a fresh-picked strawberry.
But as good as it may taste, it’s not quite the same as going out to pick your own. But whenever I see a beautiful homegrown, strawberry and smell the sweetness, I can’t help but remember those good old days of goin’ pickin’.