1940s Archive

A Berry Good Time

Originally Published July 1943

It was easy locating America, once those early navigators got somewhere off on the Atlantic Ocean on a fine day.

All they had to do was to follow their noses. They smelled it. And those early explorers had a nose for a good thing. The reason America smelled more like Araby the Blest than Araby herself was that America was covered with wild strawberries. It was wild strawberries that led Captain John Smith to that meadow which was to become Jamestown. So our country began on the sweet foundation of those pimpled, dimpled rubies that hang in clusters.

It was the best foundation any country could ask for.

Doubtless God could have made a better berry, the old Master of Eton used to say, but doubtless God never did. And if that goes for tame, tabby garden strawberries, what would the Master have said if he could have been turned loose in an American meadow where wild ones grew? It is a pleasant thought—the Master of Eton on all fours, with his mortarboard full of berries, his mouth red with juice, and ecstasy in his old eyes. I should like to see the Master I know on all fours that way!

Wild strawberries are the best berries of summer, and they come first. It is like life. They are as a first love. All the later ones are anti-climaxes. It was that way with mine. I have never, for sheer breathlessness and abandon, been able to match that first love I knew. It was when I was seven. And of course I was young.

Though they are an all-fours berry, wild strawberries aren't hard to pick, and you don't mind at all going on your hands and knees in green velvet. The weather isn't old enough yet to be hot, either, and a meadow starred with daisies and buttercups is a mighty pleasant place to go on your knees.

First you lift your nose and read the wind. When you have located your game, you sink to your hands and knees, part the grasses with your fingers, and begin. Personally, I strap my pail so it hangs just under my chin. So I have both hands free and the comforting presence of the world's best fragrance under my nose all the time to spur me on. And, of course, I might get hungry. Well, you part the grass, and there are the small candelabras hung with red fires. You go to it. It is easy picking field strawberries because they grow in company on one stem. You get half a dozen at one pluck. Naturally the largest berry is found to be over-ripe always, and you are afraid it will fall off and be lost, and, anyway, it would crush up under the weight of the others. So you eat the biggest berry at once.

The berries fill up fast. I can pick a twelve-quart pail of them, if the going is good, and if the airy honey the daisies send out doesn't lull me to sleep almost at once. And I am no hurrying man. I like to take my pleasures slow.

It's what has to be done to the berries after you pick them that slows wild strawberries down and keeps our fields from being depopulated of them. It is the hulling. But I never do it. I leave that to my wife. It is her province. It is her right. After all, that is what women are for. I am the hunter. I bring in the game. It is her part to dress my kill. It takes my wife five hours to hull the pailful I pick in an hour. That's about the proportion. And after the hulls and the stems are cleared away, my twelve quarts have shrunk to two. But two solid quarts of pure wild strawberries would make a pretty good dowry for any woman.

The preparation of the berries comes next. This is where art comes in, and justifies its existence to the world. Art multiplies the essential taste of field strawberries by three. The berries are not to be cooked. They are to be eaten alive. People have been known to cook wild strawberries, but they have all been hung, drawn, and quartered long, long ago. But the berries are not to be eaten au naturel. Not naked. Not in the nude. Though not to be cooked, they are, in a sense, to be concocted.

Get a pestle of white pine. No other wood will do, for any other wood will taint the berries. Get an earthen dish, broad on the base. Nothing but earthen will do. Squash your small berries to a red pulp. Some people may lift their hands in horror. But wait! The essence of wild strawberries does not come into fullest bloom until the berries are crushed. A part of the magic is in the seeds, and you must release that. You have no idea what sweetness is to come out of this adversity. This is a necessary preparation to a marriage that is soon to take place. So crush the berries up. Add sugar to the amount of about one half the pulp.

And now comes the wedding! You now add cream. Two quarts of it. And when I say cream, I mean cream. It does not come in bottles. I mean the thick, yellow, day-old-kind, which you can fold over as you would heavy velvet, and which is just beginning to think of going sour. I mean the kind of cream that has risen on old-fashioned wide pans of milk, innocent of ice and its demoralizing and degenerating influence, on the low shelves in a dark pantry. If the milk below it is slightly turned, so much the better for the cream. With a wooden spoon—no metal must touch this concoction—stir the two quarts of cream into two quarts or better of your crushed rubies. When the mass is as pink as the shy wild-rose, take the pan and set it down in the gloom of the cellar-way for a whole night. Leave it to glory and the hand of the Creator! This strawberry cream of yours must age. Old Lady Time is your cook. And she will call into service airy angels that have begun to stir in the cream, bubbles of life already in the dance which precedes the souring of milk, and they will do a mysterious thing to your sugar and berries. They will call out the souls of them.

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