I ate my first real strawberry at 19.
I’d eaten red fruits, covered with crunchy minuscule seeds and topped with a green leaf collar my whole life. Big and firm, their flavor ranged from mild and watery to puckeringly tart, any time of the year. They had white cores and fuzzy hollow centers. They came in plastic containers labeled “strawberries,” and I thought they were my favorite fruit. “S, my name is Sacha; I’m going on a picnic, and I’m bringing Strawberries.”
But those fruits were not strawberries. I had my first of the real thing on the side of the road in Sonoma Valley, California. It was petite, plump, and deep red, and its soft flesh squished easily between my fingers. The small plot of land wasn’t one of the vast strawberry wastelands of Salinas, where workers toil with no reward. There was just a hard-working family, a field, and well-treated workers. Sun-tanned hands passed the quart of California berries toward me, and I bashfully traded the hand’s owner some rumpled bills out of my own pale, smooth hands for the sweet bounty. She very much was her hands—those hands told a story of hard work and hot sun, and mine had nothing to show but sloth and my cold-weather roots.
I ate the berries, all the berries, right there in minutes. Ruby-red from edge to center, their juices ran down my mouth, staining my lips, my chin, my hands, my clothes. Nope; if this was a Strawberry, I had never previously had one.
But real strawberries don’t just exist on the side of the road in California. In fact, many of the imposters come from California. In June and early July they’re found at my local farms.
I have two simple requests, as strawberry season winds down. The first is more important: Don’t buy strawberries at the grocery store. Don’t buy strawberries in February. The berries you find in the supermarket, in addition to being flavorless, have a shady chronicle. Many of the big producers (think Driscoll’s) mass produce berries made of plastic—they’re grown too big to appeal to bigger-is-better American idiocy and to require less picking per package; they’re bred to be hardy and resist disease; and they’re packed before they’re properly ripened so they ship without sogging. Worse, some of these producers exploit their workers—lower than low wages that reward speed not hours, no breaks, unsanitary camps.
Say you’ve heeded the first request. Say you’ve acknowledged that berries are a fleeting treat—that’s what makes them so good—so you spend the extra money to buy them only when they are available close to you. If you do stick to this rule, you shouldn’t cook them. Or, at least, all of them. I’ve made strawberry desserts over the years, but I’ve finally realized that the best thing to do with strawberries is to just eat them. Do little to nothing with the last of the season fruits. They are candy, dessert, what have you on their own, and they’re too special to mask. Below I’ve dressed them up a tad—tossed them with a pinch of salt and some pink pepper, let them sit until their juices just start to run, and served them with whatever: farmers’ cheese, whipped cream, ice cream, nothing.
Real strawberries are my favorite fruit.
1 pint strawberries, topped, quartered if large or halved if small
Ground pink peppercorns
Toss strawberries in bowl with salt and pepper to taste. Let sit until juices just begin to emerge. Serve.