I bought two flats (total weight, about 10 pounds) of strawberries earlier this month so that I could make preserves. It’s not a cost-saving measure to make my own. Ounce for ounce, just about any jar of strawberry jam at a grocery store is much cheaper. But store-bought jam doesn’t taste remotely like what you can make from sun-warmed fruit that’s been allowed to ripen on the plant. And when the berries — crimson inside from stem to tip — are sold mere yards away from the fields where they were grown? Well, you’ve got to rush home with your treasure and start rinsing and hulling immediately, before the strawberry bombs start exploding.
My transaction with the farmer didn’t start off so well.
The strawberry farm is 19 miles from my house. I parked my car next to others on the gravel lot beside a highway and joined a clot of shoppers heading toward the open-air stand. Wow, I said, impressed by the crimson tide on view as I approached his tables laden with fruit. A metal awning provided shade from the hot sun, and acres of strawberry plants greened the fields behind him. The strawberries before me dazzled like jewels, their perfume sweet, their shapes perfect and unblemished. I asked the farmer if the berries were picked by hand.
The farmer splayed his weathered fingers on the table, leaning forward on stiff, brown arms until his face was just a few inches from mine. “Ma’am,” he said slowly and deliberately, in a voice as gravelly as his parking lot, “there is no such thing as a…strawberry….picking….machine.”
And he went on to detail how his operation depended on the labor of 15 Mexican men who worked his crops for several months every year, helping him and his sons in the fields. The farmer helped the migrants procure visas and provided them with bus tickets, meals, lodging, and decent pay in return for hard work and observing three rules: “I tell ’em, don’t drive our cars, don’t mess with our women, and don’t drink our whiskey,” the farmer said. His expression seemed to indicate that anyone not inclined to agree could take a hike to Mexico. Or worse.
Exposed as I was as a citified fraud, possibly to be ejected for ignorance from the lines of people allowed to buy his fruit, I nodded and smiled and acknowledged my humble status as a tourist in the land of strawberry farming. Thus mollified, with a twinkle in his eye that suggested he unleashed his best crusty attitude for the amusement of his helpers, the farmer sold me $30-worth of berries which he amiably carried to my car, since my hands were full of chihuahua. Bruiser had accompanied me on this trip, and he was eyeing the farmer with growing annoyance.
“Oh, look what I’ve been reduced to now, second to a dog,” the farmer called out to the women tending the cashbox. “I gotta carry the strawberries so that she can carry the dog!”
“She” couldn’t wait to get home, sure that any more casual comments would generate more farm-talk flubs, and Bruiser seemed poised to bite. We motored home. I made jam until early the next morning, and the fruit that didn’t make it into my half-pint jam jars was sliced, sugared, and bagged for the freezer. The last few berries I saved as a topping for this delicious, fine-textured cake.
Half-a-Pound Cake, adapted from Southern Living Cookbook for Two, by Audrey P. Stehle, © 1981 by Oxmoor House, Inc., Book Division of Southern Progress Corporation of Birmingham, Alabama. This book was an engagement gift from my parents, and I have made this recipe many times over the years. Curiously, the batter fit perfectly in a standard 9x5x2.75-inch (1-pound) loaf pan early in my experience, but in later years, to my dismay, I found that it overflowed the pan. I tried beating the batter less, which didn’t work, and then I found a slightly larger pan at Williams-Sonoma designed to hold a 1.5-pound loaf. It measures 10.5×5.5×3-inches, and it’s ideal. Whichever pan you use, don’t fill it to the top with batter. Leave some room for rising!
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
3 eggs at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/2 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease and flour a 1.5-pound loaf pan. (See above note for dimensions.)
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, combine the sugar, butter, and shortening, beating until light and fluffy. Scrape the sides of the bowl several times during this process to make sure the sugar and fats are combining well. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Add it to the butter mixture alternately with the milk. When all is combined, beat the batter for an additional 5 minutes.
Scoop the batter into the prepared pan, and place it in the oven. Bake for 1 hour, or until the cake tests done. (The top will spring back when pressed gently with a fingertip, and a toothpick inserted in the center will come out dry, or with a few crumbs attached.) Transfer the pan to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then remove the cake from the pan and let it cool completely.
Serve with sugared berries and whipped cream. (If you must know, that’s Cool Whip in the picture. I have a thing for certain fake foods like that. I also prefer Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup over real maple syrup on my pancakes and waffles. Go figure.)
Heading home with our treasure.