Strawberry Season

The exact boxes we picked into when I worked at the orchard. Photo by ewan traveler, via Flickr.

We picked strawberries twice this spring, at the orchard where I had my first non-babysitting job. The first time, my mom met us there and Michael decided to help her fill her flat. Here’s his story, which he shared with me on the way home: “I picked a strawberry, but it had a bad spot. Grandma said we don’t want strawberries with bad spots. I tried to put it back on the plant, but it wouldn’t go.”

Alex and I got a good giggle out of that bit of cuteness.

I both loved and loathed that job picking strawberries. The orchard was at the edge of town, across from the water treatment plant and along the railroad, which separated it from the east-west highway. We lived a handful of miles farther out in the country. During strawberry season, my sister and I rode our bikes there in the cool of the morning and picked berries until 11 or 11:30, and then had to ride home again, which was the really icky part. We picked with various other junior high and high school students over the years we were there, most notably a girl who later suffered from cancer and beat it. I have no idea where she is now.

But that place was quite the education in a time quickly passing, although I didn’t realize it then. Edgar, the owner, was, well, he looked a lot like the old man in “Up,” but he was taller. But his voice was much higher-pitched, a little nasal, and his mannerisms were much like those of my sassy, feisty, also-country-bred grandmother. His wife was really sweet, and he employed an enormous lady who had a cackly voice and who LOVED to talk. She’d sit there picking through our quarts of strawberries to separate the biggies from the littles, which were sold separately, and I swear she ate one for every three she put in a box for sale.

Edgar himself could not have been a better boss. We got paid 25 cents per quart we picked, 6 quarts to a flat, so $1.50 a flat. But when we were picking in the older vines, which made smaller berries, he’d pay us more because it took longer to fill a quart box. He rounded everything up and paid us in cash. He gave us sodas and ice cream bars, and about half the time he took pity on us, loaded our bikes in the back of his truck, and drove us home. I do not understand how the man made a dime.

I worked at that orchard maybe three weeks a year for, I don’t know, four or five years. I didn’t realize what that experience had done to me until Christian took me strawberry picking early in our marriage and he got mad at me because he thought I was picking more than we could use. (Which was almost certainly true.) But in the last two years, as we have started taking the kids strawberry picking, my extreme efficiency and speed has become a family joke. It’s like I can’t stop until every berry is gone. And I really like picking them. There’s a pleasure in popping those fragrant, fat, soft berries, so different from what you get at the grocery store, off the vine and into the flat. It’s a little addictive.

And it turns out Alex finds it that way, too. Day one was twenty-four hours before we left for Memorial Day weekend, and we came home with twenty-three pounds of berries. I spent the entire afternoon washing, stemming, slicing and freezing jam and pre-measured fruit for pies. Ahem. The second time, we picked seven pounds in twenty minutes. It seemed woefully insufficient. I told the current owner maybe next year we’d come work for him again. And Alex actually liked the idea.

It’s been a crazy week, and since Michael is attacking bicycles and the Hyundai windmills with a pool noodle light saber, I think it might be wise to sign off. Happy Friday.