The sweet smell of berries stirs delicious memories

June 07, 2000|By Rob Kasper

THE PERFUME of the first fresh strawberries of the season washed over me the other night, triggering a flood of memories.

Ever since I was a kid, I have associated the start of strawberry season with the first taste of summer freedom. School let out just as the crop came in. So when the kitchen smelled like strawberries, it meant the regimen of the school year had given way to the slower pace of summer vacation. That was sweet air.

It also signaled the first employment opportunity of my boyhood summers. A family in our neighborhood ran a wholesale produce business. Every June, one member of that family, "Big John" Waris, a former high school basketball star who was close to 7 feet tall, would recruit my older brother and me to peddle strawberries door-to-door.

I lived in St. Joseph, Mo., a town of 78,000 that hugs the banks of the Missouri River. Now, as a resident of downtown Baltimore, I see similarities between the sales techniques used by the a-rabs who ply the big city streets of Baltimore and the huckster style we used years ago selling strawberries in a small Midwestern town.

First, there was the commotion, some noise to stir up the neighborhood. The vehicle toting the goods usually generated the commotion. In Baltimore these days, bells jingle as the horse pulling the a-rab's cart ambles down the street. Often an a-rab sings out what he is selling, "strawwwwwberries." Back in St. Joe, Big John honked the horn of his pickup truck as it inched its way along residential streets. Nobody sang.

The doorbell ringers came next. These were kids who pushed doorbells, carried a sample product and greeted whoever came to the door with a sales pitch.

As a ringer, I soon became acquainted with the various purchasing styles of the strawberry-buying public. There were the pinchers, the pourers and the hagglers.

The pinchers wanted to squeeze a berry or two before they bought. The pourers, suspicious of bad berries, wanted to pour the entire contents of the quart box into a bowl. The hagglers wanted to look over all the goods before buying.

Usually, the hagglers weren't satisfied with the berries carried by the ringer. Hagglers walked to the truck, scanned the entire crop, then tried to negotiate a special price.

I learned to tolerate the pinchers and the hagglers because they usually ended up buying something, and ringers got a cut of the sales price. But the pourers were a pain. They would empty quart after quart of strawberries and never be satisfied with what they saw.

When you got a little strawberry-selling experience under your belt, you learned who the pourers were in your neighborhood, and, instead of ringing their doorbell, you skipped them.

One June when I was a teen-ager, I ventured into a new area of the strawberry enterprise: picking them. This job involved travel. Big John put my brother and me in his pickup and drove us across the river to a farm in Doniphan County, Kan. The farm was only about 10 miles west of town. It was a world away from the life I knew.

While the town we lived in was not exactly Paris, it did have pavement. Out here, dirt dominated. The roads were dirt. The landscape was dirt. There was even a fair amount of dirt on the two teen-age girls who lived there and were picking the strawberries with us.

As my brother and I hopped out of the truck, Big John promised he would come back for us at the end of the day. Then he drove away in the dust.

Picking strawberries turned out to be hard, hot work. Late in the afternoon, ink-colored clouds rolled in. The sun disappeared. Thunder rumbled. Rain pelted us, sending us scurrying inside the farmhouse.

The house was dark and seemed to have one piece of furniture, a well-soiled sofa. My brother and I, the city boys, sat on the sofa, while the country girls scurried around the edges of the room, giggling. Their mother was in the room, too, somewhere in the darkness. I wondered where the men, the male farmers, were.

It rained with a fury, turning the field of dirt into a sea of mud. Gradually, it occurred to me that if the roads washed out Big John would not be able to get to the farm. Spending the night in this house was a distinct possibility. Maybe that was why the girls were giggling. Maybe the farmer would show up the next morning and announce that, in these parts, once you spent a night in the house with a farmer's daughter, you and she were hitched. This was not my idea of strawberry fields forever.

I spent a lot of time looking out the farmhouse window, hoping to see Big John's truck appear on the horizon. It did, right before sundown. I was so happy to see his nearly 7-foot body I could have hugged him, right at the kneecap. I ran out to the truck and quickly loaded it with flats of picked berries.

My brother and I rode back over the Missouri River into civilization, covered with mud and smelling of strawberries. At home, we presented our mother with a few boxes of berries, then spent the better part of an hour scrubbing ourselves in the shower.

Mom made strawberry shortcake for dessert that night. It was delicious.

The whiff of fresh strawberries reminded me of this the other night as I stood in my downtown Baltimore kitchen, making shortcake. I found the berries for this dish not in a farmer's field, but at a farmers' market. They smelled good and had the less-than-perfect-body look of local berries. I had resisted the urge to pinch them.

My days as a huckster and picker are gone, but a simple batch of local strawberries can still deliver both sweet memories and a sweet dessert.

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