A la Recherche des Fraises Perdus (Remembrance of Strawberries Past)

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Good Evening:

I had yet another perfect strawberry this past weekend. I know I don’t have to describe the perfect strawberry, because you already know. There were other strawberries in and on the stack of pancakes, of course, but one stood out as everything you and I have always loved in the berry. And as I bit into this perfect strawberry, memories came back to me, long forgotten, as they did to the narrator when he bit into his Madeleine in Marcel Proust’s famous novel.

San Franciscans are spoiled; we have access to locally grown strawberries for all but 6-10 weeks of the year. They were much rare in New England where I grew up. At best, you could find fresh strawberries for only 3 months each summer. The first memory was of my first job, working in a restaurant kitchen one summer in Vermont, where one of the first head chefs there had formerly been the chief nutritionist to Her Majesty Queen Victoria of England. When the first strawberries arrived in the kitchen, the assistant cook immediately proclaimed that he immediately had to “inspect” them immediately. Did I mention that he had to “inspect” them immediately?

“I love strawberries. They’re my favorite food,” he said as he savored a mouthful of three. “So what if I’m allergic.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re allergic to strawberries?! Won’t that kill you?!”

“Nah, I just get hives.”

“So how do you deal with that?”

“You can’t. I just go around with hives for two months of the year. It’s cool.”

OK. If he insisted, and he did, then it was cool.

During college, I picked up a little extra income working at a restaurant in Philadelphia that had a peculiar problem every Valentine’s Day. Our customers/fans were passionately fond of what we called Strawberry Heart Tarts, heart-shaped tarts layered with dark chocolate and cream cheese filling on the bottom and filled with strawberries coated in raspberry jam. As Screamin’ Jay Hawkins once said, if the people want it, then the people must have it, so when the people wanted the tarts for their Valentine’s Day dinners, we had to provide them. The trouble was that it was impossible in those days to find strawberries anywhere in the United States in winter, except for a few in California that were very, very, expensive.

However, winters in the Southern Hemisphere are very, very, warm.

So we imported strawberries via air freight from New Zealand. Every bit as crazy as it sounds, but we had to have them. New Zealand’s berries are outstanding, and the restaurant simply passed the cost of air shipping onto the customers, who didn’t care because they were in love. But you can’t ship such fragile berries over such long distances without losing many to bruising, rot, or that fuzzy white mold that looks like a beard. So when the ten flats of NZ “strawbs” arrived, everyone who could be spared had to stop what they were doing and inspect every single strawberry. After removing the unusable ones, we had maybe 2/3 of the shipment left. Our First Cook would look at his minions as they gazed wide-eyed and drooling at these perfect berries, and he would say that he officially and hereby imposed a “Strawberry Tax.” We had to make sure they tasted right, anyway, so we all got “inspect” one berry. Since the New Jersey berries would not get harvested for months, we savored these.

Good memories. And all evoked by a single perfect strawberry at last Sunday’s brunch.

Vonn Scott Bair

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