Trying to find area's perfect strawberries

June 14, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Have you every heard someone ask a seafood dealer, "Is this crab meat fresh?"

Do you really expect the salesman to reply, "No. It's 10 days old and was shipped up from Louisiana by slow train."?

From childhood, I was taught to doubt the word of most Maryland fishmongers and produce hucksters. I was taught that a healthy and vigorous skepticism of all supposedly locally grown strawberries, corn, peaches and seafood from Maryland waters was a prerequisite.

I was taught those lessons by the executives of that old house on Guilford Avenue. My grandmother Lily Rose was the president; her sister, Aunt Cora, was the vice president; my mother, Stewart, was their chief taster.

These women were tough graders. Grocers, alley A-rabers, truck farmers, roadside stand operators and fish sellers met their match when dealing with these three.

I don't know what was worse. If they didn't like the looks of a quart of strawberries, they criticized it on the spot. If they took a chance, bought it and found it lacking when they got home, surely the ears of the berry seller would burn for a week after they confronted him about it. At the dinner table or at the sales counter, they were equally acerbic in their comments.

And, in fairness, they could also lavish praise on and give repeat business to merchants and farmers they trusted. And they were aware the season of good local berries is short and dependent upon the weather.

They shared a passion for great strawberries, not necessarily large strawberries, but ones at the peak of ripeness and full of taste. They employed all sorts of grading criteria for these berries, standards I could never quite understand or master. The yardstick they used was the perfect box of berries found in Fallston in 1932.

They preferred produce and seafood from Maryland and were usually guided by the species taken from waters in Anne Arundel County or the lower Eastern Shore.

They erupted into high fury should a fruit seller hide rotten berries on the bottom of a quart box, having placed good berries on the top. They were always complaining that berries looked good but lacked flavor. A flavorless strawberry was their idea of a race horse without a winner.

Blah-tasting berries were immediately dumped in a pot, doused with a scoop of sugar and stewed. Stewed strawberries went into a special category of culinary purgatory. They went on the breakfast table and sat in a state of culinary oblivion. The best thing you could say was that the usual stewed prunes my grandfather consumed in the morning were not served the days stewed strawberries showed up.

If any of these lackluster strawberries were left at lunch, my grandmother would spoon them over cottage cheese. My mother just lashed out at the poor farmer or idiot grocery who had the nerve to offer bland berries.

They rejoiced at the discovery of a source of worthy berries. These they would buy by the flat and we'd be eating them until our fingernails turned red.

It was truly a happy day, an occasion for the cooks, tasters and eaters to display their better berry side.

No matter what the heat, Aunt Cora hauled out the baking sheets and produced her excellent strawberry shortcake, a dessert that had more steps than Thanksgiving dinner.

It involved homemade biscuit dough molded into an island, a coating of something she called nun's butter icing, fresh crushed strawberries -- not stewed -- and whipped cream.

Even the whipping cream had to pass the critical standards of that kitchen. It was graded on the same demanding scale as the strawberries. After repeated orgies of tasting butterfat, the ladies discovered cream from the Lewes Dairy in Lewes, Del. It was thick and rich and tasted divine.

As they told the tale, this was the only cream worthy of their palates.

There was only one hitch.

You couldn't buy it in Baltimore and none of these three women drove a car. So any family member or friend going in the direction of the Eastern Shore was asked to pick up a quart or two. It went into coffee, mashed potatoes and egg nog and, of course, was beaten and lathered on the strawberries.

And the cream was put to another use. There were years when we were still serving strawberry ice cream on Halloween.

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