April 11, 2010

Maine Observer: Strawberry season sneaking north

By RICHARD C. DILLIHUNT

With spring looming, thoughts turn again to those cherub-like brilliant red bulbous fruits crouching low beneath protecting leaves, and wearing their seeds on the outside, in defiance of Mother Nature: strawberries!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard C. Dillihunt, M.D., is a resident of Portland. He can be contacted at dillihunt8@aol.com.

Readers may submit original 500-word essays about Maine life via e-mail for this column tomainevoices@pressherald.com. Submissions must include the full name, address and daytime phone number of the author.

With the weather playing an unpredictably dominant role, the cousins of Maine strawberries arrive by air, land and sea from afar. Changing rapidly, modern agricultural technology has been at work to make them bigger and better.

How has this worked out? Have they improved? Startlingly brighter, they come in different boxes -- flimsy, clear, plastic nests for berries that have become humongous. Sometimes only eight or so to a box, looking mostly like strawberries should for shape. Yet others are contoured like big scraggly noses.

They are often white near their attachment to the stem, suggesting some kind of manipulative ripening process unknown to the diner, hidden from the public domain. Partaking of these alien berries is a ritual.

After a painstakingly slow inspection, a single berry is selected, chosen as if it were a Godiva chocolate at Bloomingdale's. After a berry from away is bitten into, however, several facts become evident and deserve to be told.

Most resemble Styrofoam on the inside, and those remaining spoil too quickly. The white cottony fungus is no longer seen, replaced by mushy soft spots. Odor and taste are disappointing, in fact nearly absent.

The imported strawberry may have become best in show in a beauty contest of fruits -- but as is well known, beauty is only skin deep. Science has sparingly improved the taste, yet the biggest gain is in the size -- a quarter- pounder may yet appear.

As the season progresses up the coast toward Maine and nature's calendar turns, there is a rolling awakening of local strawberries along the Atlantic, and the ripened berries taste better as they bear down on coastal and inland Maine. Apparently rumbling earthquakes in faraway places have not disturbed their winter slumber.

A botanical symphony boasting Mother Nature's highest choreography of color, taste, size, consistency and excitement arrives in two distinct forms; wild and cultivated. Nothing written can describe their arrival.

The tiny wild variety easily wins all taste contests, while their bigger cultivated brethren are best in class. Maps of the whereabouts of the wild variety are secretly handed down through generations.

Finally, they burst forth, to the joy of those who have waited for this day. How can dirt be transformed to become these beauties without guidance from a higher level?

Whole families harvest these wonders of nature, turning them into indescribable pies, shortcakes and jams. Kids are allowed to pick them without being admonished -- emerging from gardens with telltale stains of lips, tongue and fingers.

Then abruptly an invisible switch is thrown by Mother Nature, and the wait is on for next year. The wait, however, is never in vain, as the native Maine strawberry is consistent and punctual, like the people of Maine who await their arrival.


 

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