Thursday, May 22, 2014

Sweet as May

They say timing is everything.

Two things that reliably happen around the same time every year are strawberry season and my birthday.

With that in mind, I figured today was a good afternoon to head over to Gallmeyer Farms to pick strawberries. I could have called first, but why? It must be strawberry season by my birthday eve, right?

Eschewing the highway for the back roads of the east end, I followed Darbytown Road to the strawberry farm that long ago won my devotion over the mega operations in Ashland and Chesterfield.

Except as I drove up the winding, dirt road, there was a suspicious lack of people in the fields and cars parked by the old barn.

Uh oh.

Approaching the table, straw hat in hand, where a woman sat,  I tentatively asked if there were berries to pick.

"We had 500 people come through this morning," she said in an apologetic way. She corrected the number to 486, but even so, it didn't bode well for there being much left for me. "It depends on how many you wanted to pick. Enough to eat or for jam or something?"

For many years, the purpose of my picking was to make strawberry jam, an activity that would take up the entire afternoon after returning from the fields. It was worth it, though, for the taste of hours-old berries captured in jam providing a reminder of summer in cold, winter months.

But not anymore. Now I pick solely for eating and today I was also picking for a gift for another Gemini.

When the woman heard that, she reassured me they had plenty of berries for me to pick. They were located in the weeds, she explained, a 14-year old section of small, early season berries.

I've picked that type before and while it's more work because the berries are small, they are so much sweeter than the golf ball sized varieties most farmers grow.

"We were going to burn that section this year and replant, but then we saw we had so many berries coming in, we let 'em go," she said. This year's crazy weather had wreaked havoc with everyone's strawberry crops (Chesterfield Berry farm hadn't even opened, she said), it seemed, so they were grateful when the unexpected berries came up.

And I was grateful to have them to pick.

So I headed out to the weeds, the sole occupant of the entire fields, to pick berries. She was right about the weeds, wildflowers and clover, crowding the little berries in their no longer neat rows.

Didn't matter to me. I zig-zagged all over, bending over every time I spotted red on the ground. It was a tad more challenging than usual because sometimes the little gems were almost hidden from view by the weeds, but I kept at it.

I don't mind bending over for a single berry. In fact, walking the beach one summer with my youngest sister, I began picking up sea shells, no matter how tiny, but only if they were a certain color.

"Boy, you'll bend over for anything," she'd observed, laughing, unwilling to do the same.

So, yes, even if a plant held only one ripe berry, I bent down to snag it and before long I had a basket full of beautifully ripe strawberries.

When I got back to the table, the woman scanned the contents of my basket and picked up one berry. "That's going to be the sweetest one right there," she pronounced.

Because it was the tiniest? Because of its atypical shape? "Because it's got the most beautiful color," she said.

486 people had missed that little beauty, leaving it for me to discover and pop into my mouth. Sweet as May.

Timed it just right after all.

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