Strawberries and Sugar

Posted on May 23, 2012 by

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Standing with my Georgian brother, Nika, in the middle of a neighborhood bebo’s strawberry field, picking strawberries barefoot in the mud, as a toothless woman empties a handful of the red fruit into my palms, surrounded by the Caucus Mountains and peach orchards while the clouds allow a few raindrops to escape, and I know I’m experiencing yet another one of those moments. It’s a moment when I look around and all I can say is “Wow.”

I can’t speak for the rest of Georgia, but in Kakheti, strawberry season has begun. I pass buckets of strawberries for sale on my way to school; the refrigerator is full of various forms of the fruit. The backgammon table has been replaced by marshutkas and buckets of fresh strawberries, and tired women walk past my house every night on their way home from the fields.

For our most recent holiday – Victory Day – my family and I climbed into the jeep, which lacks many parts one would think are necessary to drive, and headed to boloze (“the end”). Turning into a field that only one with the experience of generations could know, we followed a path that had been covered in a week’s worth of rain and mud. However, the jeep can drive in anything, and we made it through without hesitation. Jumping out of the back and grabbing a straw hat, I followed my family to our six long rows of grapes, under which we found the strawberries.

I took a basket and began the tedious process of picking strawberries. I quickly realized that the experiences I have had in this area are completely different when you are in your own fields. Although my family in America does not have their own strawberries, I have picked and prepared strawberries before coming to Georgia. Each person gets a box or a bucket and is driven out to the fields and handed a stick. The sixteen-year-old seasonal worker points to a specific area in the row, which is where the customers start picking. Working tediously, every good strawberry is thrown into the bucket and very few are eaten, as they have not yet been weighed and purchased. When the bucket is full, the stick is placed where the next person should start, and the truck comes to pick up the customers and their strawberries. However, in Georgia, in my family’s field, Nika explained that I should eat the biggest and best strawberries and throw the leftovers – the small and sour – into my basket. Granted, we will be eating those at home later, but with sugar, no one will know.

Eventually, we decided it was time to leave as the rain threatened to spill out over the mountains. Trudging through the mud to get back to the jeep, we piled everything in the back and made it home, where we compared American and Georgian strawberry preparations.

I couldn’t help but feeling nostalgic for strawberries and summer in America; while I love Georgia and everything about the coming fruit seasons, taking the tops off strawberries brought me back to years where my mom and I filled the sink with cold water, dumped the berries in, and pulled the trash can close as we cleaned and prepared the fruit. While I continued pulling the tops off with a spoon, my mom mashed the strawberries and mixed them with sugar until there were enough to fill a quart-size bag, which was then put into the freezer. After the entire process, the freezer was full of frozen berries that could be used later for my family’s favorite: strawberry shortcake. When the kitchen was once again clean, my mom made biscuits to eat with the strawberry-sugar mix.

In Georgia, however, there were some differences in how the process was completed. Because we didn’t have water that afternoon, we dumped a bit of our leftover drinking water into the bucket and pulled the tops off the strawberries, which went directly into the glass jars and pots on the table. At a point which only my Georgian mom knows, she dumped sugar into the containers and then continued filling them. Every so often, she put more sugar in, and when the containers were full, they were placed into the refrigerator. As we cleaned and sugared the strawberries, she talked excitedly about strawberry cake, juice, and cream, which are all a part of the season. I mentioned that my mom mashes the berries and then puts sugar in them, and she said, in Georgian, to eat them “however you want.”

I don’t know how long strawberry season lasts, and I don’t know if I’ll get to go back to the fields before I leave. For now, though, I’ll content myself with the bowl of cold strawberries and homemade cream my Georgian mom just handed me. And, if in the next few days, neighbors continue offering me handfuls of strawberries from the fields, I will gladly blow off the loose dirt, shoo away the ants, and let my fingers turn red. And tomorrow, after school, I have no problems eating cold strawberries and sugar with my Georgian sister out of a tall glass, leaving the juice until the end so that I can drink it all together. Because strawberries, however they are prepared and in whatever country they are eaten, are still strawberries – delicious and the first sign of summer.

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