Strawberries, those inoffensive heart-shaped fruit, are the centre of some of my best and worst food memories and while they remain innocent and unchanged, my view of them has deliciously evolved.
When I was little, my mom would go strawberry picking and would gather ice-cream pails full on pretty fields near the Saskatchewan River. She would bring them home and my dad would dig in like a bear until mom confiscated the buckets. Our kitchen faced the backyard willow tree and it had dark wood cabinets. In the evening I would find her in front of a sink full of water, in the smell of ripe strawberries, lopping off the stems one by one with a paring knife and stopping the blade with her thumb. The strawberries would then end up in a saucepan on the stove sprinkled with brown sugar and boiled until they floated in their own dark syrup. The mixture was poured into bags, sealed with twist ties and put in the freezer. It was one of the few things she used the freezer for because it otherwise stood in the furnace room downstairs as the designated spot for my brother’s hockey table game.
In the winter mom would take out a bag of frozen strawberries and defrost it on the dish rack. She would warm them up in a saucepan and serve them spooned on top of those little yellow sponge cakes you can buy in packs of six at the store. She would present it topped with a spoonful of whipped cream.
The funny thing about these strawberries was how my brother John hated them. My parents were strict about eating and finishing what was served. I remember more than one evening spent sitting in front of an unfinished plate of cold food, miserable, like a scene from Franzen’s The Corrections. But John would power through the obligatory dessert (mom mercifully granting him a lesser ration of strawberries) and then rush off to something else. He still hates strawberries, even fresh.
You can read all sorts of things in cookbooks and Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat is a favourite of mine. I appreciate her candour. In a sub-section of her “Basics etc.” chapter entitled “Freezer” she writes about summer fruits stored in packets as an excellent dessert back-up. But be wary of the strawberries, she warns, they “take on the texture of soft, cold slugs”, and you’d be better to “remove them and chuck them out”.
Canal House treats fresh strawberries with the kind of tenderness you normally reserve for newborns. Instead of washing them, they prefer gently wiping them with a damp paper towel because “ripe summer strawberries are so fragile and full of sweetness that we hate to have to rinse them – they can easily get waterlogged”. And once you’ve reformed your rinsing, you can reform the way you hull them too: “It kills us when we see someone slice off the top of a strawberry to get rid of its leaves. Too much of the berry is lopped off; its pretty red ‘shoulders’ are ruined, and part of the white cottony hull is usually still in place. We hull our berries not with a little strawberry hulling tool – that’s a gadget that just clutters up the drawer – but with a small paring knife. We simply stick the tip of the knife into the top of the strawberry and cut around the leaves, removing both the leaves and the white cottony hull.”
Strawberries were one of the few things my mom laboured over. While I’ve found other uses for them like jam and fresh desserts, and while I’ve learned to treat them more gently and savour their brief summer appearance, I’ve kept my mom’s effort to please.