Wednesday, May 5, 2010

That's So Martha Stewart

This was one of my first paid articles in EvaMag three years ago. As I am heading to Rutherford's for strawberry picking on Friday morning, I thought you might enjoy this:

Producing homemade jam from berries I pick myself is so Martha Stewart, but that’s what I’ve decided to do. Not only will my three-year-old be exposed to a natural treasure hunt but he will see first-hand that strawberries come from vines in a field--not from the supermarket. Plus, I’m driven by a need to preserve a virtually legendary family tradition.

Growing up a farmer’s daughter in Mississippi, I helped my mother make endless jars of jam every summer. Our fruit of choice was the dewberry, similar to blackberries. They grew wild along the roadside, but they were never easy to get. Thorns, deep ditches, and snakes were the biggest obstacles. Carefully tending a bubbling pot for what seemed hours, mom turned gallons of fresh berries into a beloved treat. This labor of love was all worthwhile for the chance to give something special to neighbors at Christmas.

Having decided it’s time to create my own tradition, I turn to what’s available locally this time of year: strawberries. Thanks to pick-your-own fruit farms, this should be a snap. The closest place for me is The Fruit and Berry Patch in Halls. How disappointing to discover the freeze around Easter wiped out their entire strawberry, blueberry, and peach crop this year. I hunt around for other options and learn Rutherford’s Strawberries in Maryville does have the delicacy. Let’s go!

When I arrive with my two boys, field manager Gail King says, “I hope you’ve come for the experience and not for a large volume. This morning we had hordes of folks ascend the fields like locusts.” My heart sinks! The recipe I have for old-fashioned jam requires six cups of crushed fruit. I have no idea how many strawberries that will take. Trying to stay positive, I put my squirming infant in a sling on my back and head towards the section of the field she advises (the part with knee-high weeds).

At first my preschooler Bobby is eager for the challenge. He’s been given directions to leave all the green or gushy ones. About one out of every ten we inspect are acceptable. We’re glad we’re wearing jeans, as we crawl in the dirt for the best view. I smile when he exclaims, “Hey Mom, this one is gorgeous!” Bobby’s enthusiasm for this activity quickly fades within ten minutes, however, and I barely have enough to fill a jar of jam. So I begin speed picking. I don’t have time or energy in the blazing sun to be too choosy. I’ll just cut away the bad parts I rationalize.

As we check out, the owner of the farm, Steve Rutherford, moseys down the path. In business for more than thirty years, he established the farm as an excuse to be outside and “because strawberries are mighty tasty.” He says it’s a nice balance to his day job as a special agent, a self-described “snoop.”

When asked how his strawberries survived the freeze, he lets out a deep sigh. Like an attentive father to a newborn, Steve constantly monitored temperatures and moisture levels for eight nights of sub-freezing weather. Using ground cover and irrigation to insulate the delicate fruit with blankets of ice, he didn’t sleep for more than two-hour stretches. One night when the temperatures dipped to fifteen degrees, his pipes leaked. “I became a human popsicle trying to fix them,” Steve remarks. He estimates he still lost hundreds of gallons of berries, probably a third of his crop, but he won’t know for sure until the season is over.

Regardless, he decided not to raise prices. At just $1.20 a pound, these strawberries are the best local price I’m told. Sensing my concern that four pounds isn’t enough, Steve advises making “freezer jam” instead. You only need four cups of fresh fruit, it requires less sugar than traditional methods, it’s much easier to make, and it tastes just as good if not better. SOLD!

Equipped with pectin and plastic cups specified for freezer jam, I’m ready to give our family tradition a modern twist. It is as easy as the packet instructions say: measure, crush, stir, and pour. I almost feel guilty that it isn’t more laborious. Bobby grins from ear to ear when we crush berries into mush. The taste test results are delicious; you truly can tell a difference from store-bought. All said, each eight-ounce container costs about two dollars, but I’m hoping my son will consider the experience priceless.

Footnote: Rutherford’s Strawberries on 3337 Mint Road in Maryville should have berries available through mid-June, but call ahead (982-5891). They’re open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 8am- 1pm and 4-8pm or until picked out. For other farms and produce, check out

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