Strawberry Thumbs

“Do we have to take the strawberries? Can we substitute something else for them?” Ahh, the zucchini of early summer. They are lovely to see on those June CSA tables: summer’s first fruit. Strawberries. Strawberries. Strawberries.

My thumbs wince when my eyes connect to those pints and quarts of red gems. Thirty-some years ago, Mom’s strawberry patch in Iowa yielded 50 or more quarts of strawberries every summer. And when it came time to “do strawberries,” our summer tutorial in fine motor skill manipulation began.

If you were old enough to say “strawberry,” with or without the “s,” you were given a little bowl for the stems, an empty big bowl for the stemmed berries, and a quart of strawberries. Your stemming tools: your thumbs and thumbnails. The first quart was fun with a one-for-me, one-for-the-bowl rhythm. Second quart, belly full, thumbs red. Third quart, uncomfortable. The skin under the nail starting to separate from the nail. After that quart, intense stinging -- until we convinced Mom the pain was too much to continue.

When we were around eight or so – and despite Mom’s grimace – Grandma showed us how to use a little paring knife to stem the strawberries. The white-handled Pioneer corn seed knife was to me what the wheel was to the cave man. Mom’s idea of using thumbs was to salvage as much strawberry as possible from little stemmers. I’m sure safety was a concern, but I think freezing 95 percent of each berry rather than 50 percent was a higher priority. This is the same reason why none of the kids were sent into the patch to pick berries – the risk of tramped-on casualties was too high.

With all strawberries stemmed, Mom sprinkled on a little sugar, gave them a quick stir, then spooned these little summer delights into pint bags, and slipped them into the deep-freeze in the basement. Year-round, no birthday celebration would be complete without strawberries over ice cream.

At the first CSA pick-up, I was reminded again what a fresh strawberry really is…picked ripe. Like Mom’s patch, from the CSA table, there is no need to drill out the core of the strawberry with a paring knife. The fruit is ripened all the way up to the stem. So, this week I washed the berries and put them on the table. I didn’t encourage my kids to stem with their thumbs, but told them, “That’s the handle. You can eat it right up to the stem.” But they didn’t, so I carefully removed the stem with a paring knife so they would eat 95 percent of the berry versus 50 percent. The strawberry doesn’t fall far from the plant.

As I approach the CSA table, the strawberries brighten the tables of green, and my thumbs beg for a substitute. Although the little white paring knife, Mom’s strawberry patch, and an endless sea of red quarts are far away in time and space, strawberry thumbs are forever.