Traveler's search for strawberries is long but fruitful

HAPPY EATER

May 18, 1994|By ROB KASPER

As soon as we crossed the Bay Bridge I began looking for strawberries. This was a springtime weekend trip to the Atlantic Ocean. The water would be too cold to swim in. But the mosquitoes would be on vacation. Moreover, the sun was warm, the air was sweet, and travel has always made me hungry.

When I take a family trip, I plan some reward for me, the chief driver and trail boss of the outfit, to enjoy at the end of the trip.

Sometimes the only thing that keeps me calm during Route 50 traffic jams is the thought of the Sybaritic feast that awaits once we reach our destination.

Usually when we make a journey, we pack enough food and drink to satisfy a family of four for a month. My reward is often included in these provisions. Sometimes it is a well-marbled steak that I toss on the grill even before the bags are unpacked. Other times it is fresh shrimp, bought at a roadside seafood stand, and steamed for a feast redolent of melted butter and Muscadet.

In the doldrums of family travel I think of joys potable, as well as edible. At journey's end I have been known to imitate a favorite in this week's Preakness horse race, and "Go For Gin," pouring myself a gin rickey -- equal parts gin and lime juice, followed by ice cubes and club soda.

There was talk among the passengers about food, but it concerned which fast-food emporium we were going to pull into.

Picking a fast-food stop for the family is often a complicated procedure that requires skillful negotiation among hostile parties. There is the Roy Rogers hamburger faction, the McDonald's chicken nugget contingent, the Subway cheese steak loyalists and the Popeye's chicken fans.

My only requirement was that the place we picked had to be located on the right side of the road. The only reason for stopping at a fast-food place was speed. I figured it was contradictory to waste time getting to a joint on the "wrong side" of the highway.

Eventually the fast-food factions came up with a compromise candidate, Burger King. I was told to pull over at the first sign of a Whopper. I missed the first one, somewhere around Grasonville. I was in the wrong lane. My failure to make the turnoff was roundly criticized by passengers who claimed to be suffering from parental cruelity, starvation and dehydration, at least until I pulled into the Burger King in Easton.

Once the tribe had been given its fast-food fix, I began my search for my reward, fresh strawberries. En route to Cambridge and Salisbury, I looked for signs put up by owners of roadside produce stands. I was looking for a particular type of sign. Nothing too fancy would be acceptable. I figured, any produce stand operator who spent a lot of money on a sign, wouldn't think twice about shipping strawberries in from California.

A hand-lettered sign would be best, perhaps with a misspelling. I didn't see one.

This was last weekend, just two weeks before Memorial Day and the pickings were pretty slim. I did spot one stand outside Salisbury that looked promising. But as I got closer I saw it was advertising "local" tomatoes and that scared me away. I know everything grows faster on the Eastern Shore than it does west of the Bay Bridge. But I found it hard to believe that even the fabled Eastern Shore farmers could be harvesting tomatoes in May.

I turned south on Route 13 and saw a promising stand outside Pocomoke City. It was just a guy selling something, maybe strawberries, from the back of his truck. But he was on the wrong side of the highway, with no turnaround in sight.

It looked like I might have to make a trip without a reward. But just south of the Maryland-Virginia line, when I slowed to make the turn onto Route 175 and head toward Chincoteague, Va., I spotted a homemade sign. It read simply: "Strawberries."

In a parking lot next to the gas station and video rental store was a battered truck. Next to the truck was a simple wooden table, and on the table were a couple of boxes of strawberries.

The berries looked like locals. They were imperfect and sandy. Some had spots of greens. Some were a little lumpy. But they had a wonderful aroma. We bought two boxes at $1.75 a quart.

My wife whipped up a shortcake using a recipe out of an old Good Housekeeping cookbook. And that night I spooned down the first strawberry shortcake of the season. One small trip for the family, one sweet reward for the driver.

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