Around this time of year, here in the Northeast, large fields of strawberries become vulnerable to the hands of their pickers.
Strawberries are at their optimal ripeness around Father’s Day and it’s the only time of the year that I make strawberry shortcake, as the strawberries are local and fresh as opposed to imported or genetically modified. Strawberries, for me, represent the start of summer and there are many strawberry socials around the area to celebrate these sweet gifts from nature.
My family always picked strawberries a bit early to allow for ripening and time to prepare for two weeks worth of shortcake. Each summer, we took advantage of sifting quietly through the strawberry patch choosing the “you pick” option as opposed to the pre-picked quarts, at a place called Tomion Farms. This is a beautiful section of farm land nestled among other vast rolling vegetable fields north of Keuka Lake, N.Y.
For me and my brother, leaving the breeze, sunshine, water and sheer fun of the cottage on the lake to go to the hot strawberry fields, was meaningless and often put a damper on our day. Although the process of picking quarts for us and a few other family members only took a few hours, the thought of red-stained hands and knees complete with harsh poke of straw sticking to our shins, was dreadful.
Many times my brother and I would ask to bring friends along to make the process somehow less agonizing. Over the years, though, I gained an appreciation for strawberry picking. The process which was once a chore has become a family tradition to look forward to.
Once when we were old enough, my parents didn’t request us to go picking but instead said they would be going to pick strawberries and will be back in a few hours. That was the year, because I didn’t feel obligated or pressure to participate, that I started going under my own discretion. It was Father’s Day and my brother and I went along because we wanted to go. That trip I took everything in.
The drive to Tomion Farms was short but, one of my mother’s favorite drives. This 20-minute drive north of the lake was exceptional not because it encompassed amazing views of the lake, vistas, or mountains but because of its quaint fertileness and tranquility of the land.
The sky above seemed to be endless and stretched almost as far as the eye could see, just as it does in the Big Sky country of Montana. The dark rich fields of soil produce excellent produce which can be sold in the small wooded sheds and lean-tos along the road, which were often un-manned and run on the honor system. The farms around the area were perfectly positioned and immaculately kept by Mennonite families who help to keep the area simple and beautiful.
When we arrived that day, my dad compared the “you pick” and pre-picked prices and noted that the price had gone up 10 cents since last year. Needless to say, he choose the latter. The next stop was at the entrance where a proud, young, blonde haired girl handed us green quart containers and directed us to the appropriate field.
Dad asked the girl, “how’s the picking today?” She answered: “Really good, I hear. Follow the dirt road to the trucks with the flags.”
As we meandered to the field, we passed rhubarb, raspberry and dill fields. Continuing, we saw in the distance, a truck with strawberry printed flags gently swaying from it. When we reached the truck, I felt the need to kick off my sandals to feel that once-annoying feeling of straw beneath my feet. My brother and I took a divided wooded crate and followed along behind my parents and the strawberry lady.
We passed several rows of occupied pickers with their heads down and their behinds in the air, until we reached our designated rows. This year, because of the excellent combination of appropriate rain and sunshine, the strawberries were excellent, and both sides of each row could be harvested.
This year, the strawberries were clustered like grapes and looking around, I’m sure some people consumed more strawberries than they put into their quart. In fact, I noticed a woman on her hands and knees who quickly looked from side to side before shoving a “keeper” into her mouth, as if this was illegal.
At the end of the pick, we had gathered 12 quarts of delicious, juicy, red ground fruit of which jam, shortcakes, and other summer gifts would be made. That was the last time I remember going strawberry picking with my whole family.
Since then, my brother and I have moved away and began our own lives. This year, I took my 7-month-old daughter into the fields at Way Fruit Farm this year, to hopefully start our own tradition of strawberry picking. Undoubtedly, she will go through the same dread of the strawberry hunt as I did but, hopefully in time, will preserve the memories picking strawberries with her family as an exciting summer tradition.