My grandmother was a stereotypical grandmother for the early sixties. She had raised her ten children in the big house on the hill and now she was raising one grand-daughter who's mother had died during childbirth. She raised all her own vegetables as well as some chickens and a turkey or two. (Ask my mother to tell you the story about the turkey that chased her up the woodpile.) Of course, she cooked everything from scratch. When we came to visit, she would wake us up every morning to eat the huge breakfast of biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, juice and toast she had made while we were all still asleep. I always marveled at how much she got done before the day even began.
When I finally did watch her make biscuits, I saw that she did it as quickly and easily as we open a can today. She didn't measure anything. Just took some handfuls of flour, some 'other stuff' and mixed it all up right on the counter. Grabbed off some wads and put them on the baking sheet. When she was done there was just a light dusting of flour left on the counter which she would scrape off onto one hand and put back away.
Not all food was this easy, though. Some even took a team effort. Many an hour have I spent snapping beans and shelling peas. Especially black-eyed peas (which are really beans, but who cares). I helped my aunt Toni (the grand-daughter they adopted by the kind of common law that was common back then) pick bushels of apples, peaches, raspberries, and blackberries from their trees and thickets. From which, Grandma would make the tallest pies you have ever seen. How she could make the crust the same way she made biscuits and not have it come out tasting like biscuits was something I couldn't understand.
But all of these picking skills didn't come naturally. I had to serve an apprenticeship first:
I couldn't have been but three or four years old. I remember there being some conversation over how I had never tasted a strawberry before. Why my mother had been negligent in this duty I'll never know. But I don't hold it against her. Well, my Grandma was resolved that I should not be denied this, one of life's finer pleasures, a moment longer. As is common among many of us of German decent, she was also resolved that, if I was going to do something, I was going to learn to do it right. So I guess it was a few moments longer.
My grandmother took me out to the strawberry patch. The rows seemed to stretch for a mile. It was probably closer to twenty yards. She showed me how to find the berries that were at the peak of ripeness. Large and firm. "The ones with the green 'n' white on 'em ain't ready yet." She reminded me to check for the soft spots that meant they were starting to turn rotten. "But don't mash too hard or you'll bruise 'em." Once we had a basket full we went in to the kitchen and she showed me how to rinse the dirt off them. She didn't even think to use pesticides back then. She cut off the leaves with one of those paring knives that Grandpa kept razor sharp. Plucked out those spongy white cores that are only attached at the top. And then, while they were still wet, she sprinkled just a little bit of sugar on them.
Finally, she picked the biggest, reddest one in the whole basket and held it out for me to take a bite out of. The thing was bigger than my little fist. I could only get a bite of the pointy end but that was all it took. How could something be so lightly sweet, a tiny bit tart, and taste cool without coming out of the refrigerator? I remember looking at my grandmother, my eyes getting wider and wider as the taste took over and awakened more and more of my mouth. I looked at my mom and back to Grandma. She had this look on her face that comes from the pleasure of giving pleasure to others and said, "Good! Ain't it?"
"Yeah" was all I could muster as I took the rest from her hand and began to take even larger bites. Well. needless to say, we finished the whole basket right there. From then on I had to have some strawberries every time we went to visit. I guess I thought Grandma's was the only place I could get them. Imagine my surprise when I learned you could buy them in a store. Not as good as the 'original' but a suitable imitation nonetheless.
As I said earlier, I don't resent that my mother had never given me a strawberry before then. In fact, I'm glad it slipped her mind all those years. If I had had them all along, perhaps I would not have appreciated that one nearly as much. Just imagine if I had never tasted one until today. As a fan once said to Samuel Clemens of his book Huckleberry Finn, "I wish I had never read it . . . So that I might have the pleasure of reading it for the first time all over again."
The contents of this post is Copyright © 2011 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.