I walked up to the cash register line at New Seasons and noticed the cashier ringing up a pint of strawberries for the three people in front of me. I did a double take when I realized they were not the large, firm, pale-colored, heart-shaped California berries.
“Are they here?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” said the tall man at the register handling the pint of berries with a cherishing smile. He was wearing lime green colored ear protection that seemed more appropriate for the tarmac at an airport than an urban grocery store.
“The real ones?” I asked to confirm that the precious red fruit in his hands were the sweet, juicy Oregon berries, not another variety simply grown locally to be disappointingly labeled “Oregon berries.”
“Oh yes,” he confirmed. “The real ones. There are only about 20 or 30 pints right now. They are by the front door.”
I left my few items on the belt and spun around to find the strawberry display that I had walked right past when I entered the store. It was almost a little early in the season so I had assumed they were not the real Oregon berries that seem only famous for jams, syrups, ice cream, and long-time local residents. Quickly I snatched a pint of berries and hurried back to my place in line.
When I returned to the cash register line the cashier was still completing the purchase for the customers in front of me. As he reached for my pint of delicacies he noted I had picked up the wrong berries. Apparently there were two varieties on the display table and I did not even notice in my hurry. As I spun around for the second time I noticed a tall thin man walking up to the line behind me. I groaned. I really hate to leave the check stand line when I forget something. I had done it twice in less than three minutes, and the second time keeping someone waiting.
When I reached the strawberry display a second time the table was indeed divided in half: Albions to the left, Hoods to the right. On site I could not distinguish the Hoods from the Albions as the cashier so easily could from a distance. Nonetheless, the Hoods are the familiar Oregon berries that are so sweet and juicy. I replaced the juice-stained green paperboard pint in my hands and selected another from the other side of the table. For the second time in less than three minutes I rushed back to my place at the front of the line.
When I returned to the check stand the man behind me was no longer there, but his items remained on the belt. Upon learning the Hood strawberries had arrived he, too, left his place in line to get a pint of the season’s first strawberries.
I asked the checker not to wrap them so that I could eat them on the way home, then exited the store through the deli door to pick up a few napkins. Before taking my first step out to the sidewalk I slurped down the first ripe berry of the season. My fingertips turned red as the bright, sugary juice ran underneath my nails. Depositing the stem in the compost bin I paused to contemplate the moment: sweet and juicy, but not exaggerated or intense the way coastal berries can be during an especially good season. Still, the season would have potential. The berries were superior to those in the previous two seasons that were notable for their scarcity more than their quality.
As I continued on my path, rating each berry carefully, I wondered why I get caught up in the annual strawberry excitement. Given a choice between an intensely sweet raspberry or similar quality strawberry I will always choose the raspberry for its more complex flavors and overlay of tartness. I suppose the excitement is symbolic in several ways.
In economic terms the strawberry symbolizes both scarcity and quality. Even the most abundant seasons only produce for about three weeks in a year. The rules of supply and demand suggest one should obtain one’s fill while there are any available at all. It is a long wait if you do not get to sample even a single berry. I know, having let the season slip away once or twice. The strawberries also represent a little satisficing. Raspberries will not be showing their ruby nubs for several weeks. I can love a good strawberry while awaiting the arrival of raspberries. More than that, Oregon Hood strawberries are among the best strawberries available. Passing up an Oregon strawberry would be akin to foregoing a rich glass of the finest California zinfandel because you know that you will be invited to a wedding in a few months where the party will be toasting Don Perrion.
On another level, the annual coming out of the Oregon strawberries is one of the first signs that summer is here; the quality of the berries is usually a reliable indicator of the quality of the spring weather and a premonition of what is coming. If I miss it, I might miss the fleeting summer altogether. Even a dismal summer is important to physical and mental well-being. In that first bite I cannot help but remember the stretch of warm days we had and the days of neverending showers that instilled each berry with its unique properties. My tongue instinctively makes its own predictions about the upcoming summer weather, summer flavors, and summer experiences. Will the tomatoes be bursting and aromatic? Will the peaches run like syrup? Will the watermelon saturate the desiccated longing of my taste buds? Will the cream be rich enough to tame the sweet-tart raspberry shortcake? Will there be vibrant fresh salsa or luccious cobbler? Which of my friends will help me make it and eat it? Who will share their own summer passions? More than anything, I love the moment of it.