I have been making do on store-bought strawberries ever since the season came in, because I had not the time or the energy to get to the Farmers' Market or to a pick-your-own patch.
Store-bought strawberries, from California, Florida, or God knows where, taste like a cutting board that has been lightly rinsed after playing host to the nubbly skins of real, local, sweet strawberries. There is that whiff of some ambrosial memory, but mostly what you taste is wood and water.
Store-bought are so inferior to the real thing that it is an act of neurotic self-punishment to eat them after you have experienced the real.
So finally, at the end of this overlong school year, this weekend, Memorial Day weekend, I had a day off, a proper night's sleep, and an opportunity to shop.
Our Farmers' Market is a kind of theme park (a description I first read in Victor Davis Hanson's Fields Without Dreams). The vendors pretty much all sell the same thing, at the same cost, with the same high quality. The fun for the customer is to choose a vendor who's friendly, colorful, authentic-looking and -sounding, and whose product just seems a cut above everyone else's.
I came expressly for strawberries and found upwards of two dozen sellers. Impossible to choose one. I took my stroll all the way down to the end of the open-sided building, where in summer the sparrows swoop about the eaves, chattering and browsing, splay-legged, on whatever drops to the floor.
It was crowded-- just the way I like it. You can scope out everything in perfect anonymity.
As I made my way to the end with the plants and the flowers, I approached a big man in a red baseball cap, sitting in front of a table loaded with nothing but strawberries.
"Try one," he said, with the best authoritative and irresistible hospitality of a Southern yeoman.
The sampling process is a little like communion, a little like the marriage of Persephone and Hades. Once you've eaten from a farmer's produce, a bond is forged. It takes a brave customer to walk away from a table after he's made eye-contact and bit into a man's life work.
Fortunately, I didn't have to walk away.
The strawberry was a good in itself-- a creamy red spicy winey magic spell conjuring nostalgia and future possibility in the same time-nullifying moment it took for my taste buds to transfer the sensation to my brain.
"This one's a winner," I said, and the man seemed to grow larger in his chair, to plump up like his strawberries.
"I thought so," he crowed. "I knew it before you even tasted it." He turned to the other folk milling and passing behind me. "Come on, everyone try one!"
I bought 4 quarts and got drunk on them sampling all the way home.
One Sunday long ago, in my evangelical youth, an ordained person of some Protestant persuasion summed up the meaning of life succinctly: "To love God, and to enjoy Him forever."
Sometimes it's difficult to love and enjoy a Person who's rumored to be living way up in the sky somewhere, looking down from a throne, stroking a white beard and considering when the end of time is to come.
But enjoying a real strawberry that's been grown, offered, sold, and eaten in love is about the most accessible thing you can do. All you have to do is love yourself enough to devote the time and effort it takes simply to move your rear end to a place where you can do the enjoying.
Whenever anyone asks what food people think will be in heaven, someone always comes out with "strawberries and cream." Maybe. But I'm inclined to think that whenever I bite into a good, honest strawberry, that other untouchable world has overlapped this one-- showing that, in a way, we already are in heaven.