I’m so lucky to live where I do. Lincoln, Massachusetts is just 20 miles west of Boston, but thanks to prescient planning by town elders in the 1950’s, a large percentage of the land here is preserved, either in conservation tracts, or working farms. So I can enjoy the quiet pleasures of living in nature, yet be in Boston for a shot of adrenaline and culture–my New York friends will scoff at that–in as little as half an hour, if the traffic gods are smiling. When we first moved here, there was only one stoplight between our house and downtown (now there are three), and John could drive to work in twenty minutes. Now, with the booming biotech industry along Route 128 corridor, the traffic from western suburbs like ours is much gummier.
Lincoln was an idyllic place to raise children, if you value lots of free play outside and aren’t too freaked out by removing ticks from your children’s beloved heads. (I cried the first time I noticed a tick lodged in under Nate’s thatch of blond hair. I think I broke the sucker in half trying to wrest it from his scalp. Now I know: a dab of olive oil and an easy twisting motion is the way to go.) Year round, I’d be out on trails with kids and a dog. Every day of the summer we’d visit one of the two local farms (Drumlin, the headquarters of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and Codman, a working community farm). Nate and Lucy would climb on tractors and follow famer Ray and his dog Boomer around Codman at feeding time, talking a blue streak as Ray silently went about his work. Mia was drawn to the quiet quarter of community gardens with their profusion of flowers and butterflies. There is still a “pick-your-own” garden every summer. It’s on the honor system: You borrow some scissors from a can nailed to the side of a gardening shed, and when you’re done, you leave a quarter for every stem you picked in a rough wooden box marked “PYO.”
In late June, the local strawberry crop is ready to pick. Verrill Farm, just over the town line in neighboring Concord, hosts a Strawberry Festival that draws people from all over Metrowest Boston. If you’re a local, you wouldn’t be caught dead in that zoo. We know to go to the fields a few days ahead of the festival, when the berries are just peaking, before the crop gets picked over or trampled by eager bands of weekenders who don’t know the ropes.
Strawberry plants are low massing and vine-like. To find the best fruit, you have to lift the leaves up off the ground and look underneath. It’s the perfect pastime for young kids who can spend long stretches hunkered down in the furrow between rows, gathering berries like seasoned field workers. You can tell a lot about a kid’s personality by his or her approach. Nate always took two quart baskets out to the field, even though we could never eat all his berries before they would start to purple and smush. He was a man with a mission: Fill the baskets with the biggest berries possible before anyone else could find them. To outsmart the competition, he would head for a row where no one else was picking. One time when he was about six, he was working a row from one end and a golden haired boy of two or three was toddling along from the other end. They met in the middle, where the little boy was about to pluck the mother of all strawberries: tennis ball-sized, deep red, stunning. Nate reached down and snatched it off the vine. Instead of crying, the toddler looked up with a cherubic smile. The berry was that beautiful. Everything in Nate’s body and soul wanted to claim that perfection. But the toddler’s expression was sweeter than jam. I didn’t need to step in for a teachable moment: Nate squatted down and handed the little guy the berry, saying “Here you go. You found it first. It’s a really good one.” Nate is a competitor down to his last cell. I knew this was very hard for him. But he shrugged it off. “I bet I can find another one that’s even better.” We wouldn’t be leaving until he did.
Lucy, on the other hand, took an aesthetic and gustatory approach. She would plop down between rows with the basket in her lap. She’d sing songs and proudly show off the “good ones,” which were always the brightest red, and often had interesting shapes to them. She especially liked the cleaved berries that resembled hearts. One of her songs went something like this: Berry for the basket, berry for Lucy/Berry for my cat and a berry for me/Berry for mommy and a berry for the butterfly/Berry for the flowers/Berries for the trees. And so on, till her chin and fingers were fire-engine red. Juice stains were the accepted price of a morning at Verrill during strawberry season. When Mia was old enough to clamber out of the backpack and join the picking, Lucy took up the role of berry-mentor, patiently accompanying Mia through the row and counseling her on her choices. Sometimes, Mia would bristle when Lucy told her to leave an unripe berry on the ground, or to reject one that was starting to go mushy on the underside. “But I LIKE that berry, Lucy!” she’d insist. “OK,” Lucy would shrug, moving on. When Lucy looked away, Mia would toss the berry in question back into the bush.
When Nate and Lucy got to middle school, the strawberry fields became Mia’s domain, and we made jam for the first time. We didn’t have a canner, so we used our lobster pot to seal the jars. The kitchen looked like we had filmed a medieval battle scene (“Game of Thrones” comes to mind): carnage everywhere, strawberry pulp and juice splattered the white cabinets and dripped on the floor, where our golden retriever Hobbes licked it up. I can’t think why we were so messy, except that we’d never done it before, so we had no idea how to pace the process and didn’t clean up as we went. I have a great photo of Mia in about fourth grade on jam-making day: in braces and an apron, she’s grins at me. Her hands, soaked and dripping from squishing the fruit to a pulp, are proudly held up to the camera. I’d post it here, but I suspect she’d kill me.
When you’re a novice jam-maker, you read up on the various techniques, or at least, that’s what we did. There are different schools of thought about whether or not you need to use pectin as a thickener, what size jars tend to give the best “set”, whether the berries should be slightly under-ripe or you should add lemon juice for the best flavor. Although we knew about the dietary evils of refined sugar, most classic recipes agreed: a good batch of jam requires a shitload of it. Don’t stint, or you’ll end up with 16 jars of useless strawberry juice. We found persnickety instructions about candy thermometers and perfect temperatures for the berries, the jar lids, and/or the utensils. We either had beginner’s luck or the jammer’s touch, because we got beautifully set jars of ruby deliciousness on our first try, and we have ever since. I’ve also made grape jelly from my neighbor’s Concord grapevines, which was labor intensive: you have to separate out the skins and the seeds, then strain the juice from the pulp, which takes an eternity. But talk about “locally grown” – the jelly was divine. When my sister-in-law and I lost out on marmalade-making lessons at an auction last year, I was disproportionately disappointed. My quaint heart takes joy at a pantry shelf of homemade preserves. What can I say? I’m a throwback.
Last week was peak strawberry season. Mia is home relaxing this summer before college, taking care of herself, doing CrossFit, pet-sitting, binge-watching, busily knitting these crazy-cute little stuffed sea or forest creatures to sell on a friend’s Etsy site. When I asked her if she was up for making jam, she was all-in. One of her high school friends, Hamilton, was in town (he’s a boarding student at her high school) and he came along. They were coming from one of Mia’s dog-sitting jobs, so we met at noon in the parking lot at Verrill Farm, the two of them armed with lattes from Dunkin’ Donuts. As we were walking to the checkout shed to get baskets and a tray, Hamilton, who’s from Georgia, commented: “You New Englanders sure do have a thing about picking. Apples, strawberries, you’re always picking something.”
The kid working at the shed told us they were closing in five minutes, but we weren’t having it. How can you close a field? “How about we pay inside so you don’t have to stick around,“ I asked. “We don’t have any toddlers so we’ll be fast.” He agreed, and we set off for the farthest rows, passing sticky-stained family groups on their way back, the little kids either whiny or sun-struck, their caregivers looking satisfied after a morning well worth the trouble of a cranky kid.
Picking with Mia and Hamilton was a paradigm shift. I went down to the far end of the row, but from 100 feet away, I could hear Hamilton singing a theme from Hamilton (the musical): Look around, look around/how lucky we are to be alive right now/in the greatest city in the world/ the greatest city in the wo-o-o-o-o-o-o-rld! He and Mia are musical theater buddies. They conversed animatedly about the new season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Every so often, one of them held up a berry: “What do you think?” or “Dayum, girl! Look at this one.” We were the only souls left in the fields. It took us just 25 minutes to pick six quarts, more than enough. The impatient teenager working the picking shed hadn’t even left yet when we arrived to check out.
Mia and I made the jam the next morning. We know what we’re doing now: The Ball jars were already sterilized and set out on the counter, the lobster pot ready to do its part understudying the role of canner. We were a little overzealous on the picking, so we had more strawberries than usual, which led to a fleeting concern that we might not have enough sugar or Ball jars on hand. But it all worked out. Mia still loves to squish the soft fruit to a pulp in her hands. I offered to do it, but she quickly cut me off: “Oh, no! Me want!,” she laughed. I don’t blame her: It’s therapeutic. She stirred the strawberries and butter (to keep the pectin from foaming) in a cast iron pot on the stove, breathing in the deep ripeness. “Omigod, that smell is so good.” She smiled, snapchatting pictures of herself leaning over the boiling pot. It was good to see her relaxed; she’s been so anxious this year.
On Saturday morning, Mia was at her boyfriend’s house, so John and I cracked open the first jar. All 18 jars set perfectly, and we didn’t lose any of the vacuum seals, which sometimes happens. I’m not eating sugar these days, so I watched John’s expression as he bit into his toast and jam.
He looked surprised, sighed an appreciative Ummm. “It’s so sweet,” he said.