Return To WOW


Strawberry Fields

by Linda Thomas

Spring in southern California sidles in between rain showers. A slant of sunlight here, a patch of warmth there, until one morning I wake to find the roadsides flaming with orange poppies and the air filled with the sweet, sandy scent of the strawberry fields.

The strawberry plants in south Orange County produce berries from early April through summer, and though the number of fields here has dwindled drastically since I was a child, I can still find a few within a mile of my home. They are quilt squares of deep green, stitched together with windrows of eucalyptus. The plantings are banked high to allow for spring flooding, and the paths between neat rows are wide so that the men who pick the berries have room to work. As the season deepens, the sun dispels the morning fog, the berries ripen, and the picking accelerates until it seems there are always crews of men in the fields, their bright yellow slickers glistening against the green in a sudden downpour.

Soon, the berries begin to appear in the roadside stands, and just the sight of them calls up in me the memory of every strawberry I have known. There were my mother's strawberries, the pints of field berries she spilled out into a basin of cold water in her kitchen. With the tip of a paring knife, she carefully dug out the crown of green leaves where the berry had been plucked from the plant. Then, she swished each berry in the cold water until the sandy field soil was washed away. If the berries were large--big as infants' fists sometimes--she would slice some in half and save others whole to top the cream she whipped for shortcakes. Her shortcakes--laced with sugar and baked quick in a hot oven--were generous, split and filled with berries and cream. We ate the rich, crooked mounds outdoors in the evening, sitting on the grass, just as owls came back to roost in the tops of the date palms, just as the bats began to circle the street lamps.

Of all the berries, strawberries have the edge. Raspberries are difficult, all those seeds, the startling bitter bite that must be tolerated before the sweet finds its way to the taste buds. Blueberries are homely and stain the crust of even the finest pie, or shrivel in an over-stirred muffin. Gooseberries have so much character that they overwhelm any presentation. But a strawberry is a strawberry, dimpled with tiny yellowish seeds, puckered at the tapered cusp, firm as a baby's thigh, red as a cock's eye. Cut one in half and discover a wheel and a star, the spokes of a sun, the color of mouths and your first good kiss.

I remember a summer night in London, when I crossed the city by underground in that blurred crush of steep narrow escalators and speeding tube trains to meet friends for dinner at Rules, a distinctly British establishment near Covent Garden. And while everyone smoked, sipped single malt scotch, and ordered beef, I chose the venison--sliced thin as tissue, laid on a flood of rich, slightly sweet, berry-brown gravy, and studded with wild strawberries. Tiny fat hearts, little upside-down Buddhas, garnets older than poetry or Druids, ancestors of the field strawberries I find here in southern California.

Shall I tell you what to do with a strawberry? There are jams, jellies, tarts, pies, shortcake--you know about these. But did you know that strawberries mashed with the flat base of a drinking glass fill a kitchen with perfume?

Did you know that strawberries wetted in a doux champagne before it has rounded out its first decade, then gently rolled in raw sugar tendered with fresh ginger--that these precede lovemaking?

Did you know that a salad made of thinly sliced strawberries and the unbruised flowers of nasturtiums and violets softens a cranky grandmother?

Did you know that a bombe made with no fewer than eight eggs per each cup of sugar and filled with kirsch and strawberries widens the eyes of children?

And did you know that a whole duck covered with the leaves of everbearing strawberries and roasted with rosemary and lavender and frequent basting with nettle butter can set the neighborhood dogs to howling, bring the moon up over the foothills, and call the gulls to stream seaward like smoke across a California evening sky?

Return To Rambles Archive.

Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

Return To WOW