Strawberry Shortcake
Nantucket Essays

In the Age of Strawberries

by Robert P. Barsanti

We celebrated the beginning of summer with picking two quarts of strawberries. Two quarts of strawberries, bought at the market, have a certain capitalistic balance. Someone measured how many strawberries could go into the box so that you could feel like you were getting a good deal but that the farmer and the market would still make some sort of money. That logic goes out the window when you pick your own. The project becomes one of frugal Yankee geometry and calculus and less one of mercantilism. You want to nest the berries, to get the highest density. So I am told.

We went out to the farm, bought the quart boxes and then set about filling them. The young men were given specific instructions about green berries and spiders, which they mostly followed. They were able to keep their attention focused on the task at hand until both boxes were half filled, then we sent them off to step on bugs while we finished the task.

I have filled my Saturdays with less productive hobbies than strawberry picking. Out in the summer sun, with the salt air blowing past and the surf underlining the morning (then highlighting the afternoon), berry picking seems productive enough. I grew to select the ripe, but not too ripe berries, twist them off gently, “nest” them in the box, and lick the stickiness off my fingers before selecting the next one. Two boxes are enough to feel that you have mastered the art of picking without feeling the stoop-labor pain of a brutal piecemeal job. Thankful that we had other careers that involved standing or sitting, we stepped back to the car, as if we were waiters cleaning off a tray of champagne flutes, then drove everyone home.

At which point, our geometry overwhelms our appetites. Strawberries and cream. Strawberries and yogurt. Strawberries pureed into a mousse. And then, two days later, strawberries wilting in two boxes in the fridge. The triumph of Yankee mathematics got hulled and frozen in plastic bags, next to the bluefish pate and last year’s Bake Shop bread. The tragedy of the commons, frozen and ready for December margaritas.

Too much fills the first weeks of summer; we slurp up the days as if they will rot in the fields otherwise. We burn ourselves in pursuit of summer. The months of July and August will stretch themselves out as they always do. We will tire of the beach, tire of the ice cream, and tire of the crowds soon enough. But in the dawn of the season, summer emerges from the kitchen with family sized helpings.

The island gorges on the Fourth of July. We set the table with bunting and crepe paper, then smash our faces into Table Top Pies. We wrap our children in red, white, and blue, arm them with squirt guns and sun screen, and set the fire hoses on them. Later, we press ourselves onto Jetties Beach for (hopefully) fog-free fireworks. Nothing becomes America like too much. Too many people, too much food, and too much sun is just right for us.

Nantucket may be the oddest place in the United States to celebrate the Fourth of July. Our Quaker forebears wanted nothing to do with the Revolution. Joseph Rotch and the rest suffered any number of indignities so that the island could stay on the good graces of their number one customer, Mother England. British soldiers were even welcomed onto the island for a dinner. Our ships were the ones that got looted for the tea party. Before Paul Revere rode out to Concord, Nantucket was one of the wealthiest ports in the colonies. After the surrender at Yorktown, we had lost almost everything. Coffins, Mitchells, and Starbucks were not firing off bottle rockets at the prospect of a new nation. Now, of course, our tune has changed. Let “Yankee Doodle” echo off of the old warehouses and wharfs. Rotch’s corporate headquarters flies Old Glory and has two ATM’s in it; both will be fluttering on the Fourth.

As a nation, our great strength may be our ability to throw out the past when (or long after) it becomes necessary. Each succeeding generation seeks to right the wrongs of the one that preceded it, then to write their own wrongs. In the last few months, our country has dropped old habits as if they were rotten strawberries. The confederate battle flag, the Stars and Bars, is no longer welcome even on the roof of hot rods. The White House and the Empire State Building have been lit in the rainbow colors of Marriage for all. Even a trip to the doctor has changed into something more fair and more socialist than we dared dream. If there is something even more American than pie eating contests, it must be fifty-year-olds getting soaked by a fire hose of change, shaking our heads and saying “I’ll be damned. I didn’t see that coming.”

Age has taught other lessons. I always use sunscreen; I don’t enter any sort of eating contest; I keep sensitive electronics safe in the presence of Ranneys and fire hoses; and I don’t watch fireworks from the Jetties. The island has more than enough high points for an unobstructed view of the explosions without the accompanying shove and tug of America in its most patriotic. The tide of history pushes on whether I am in the water or high on shore. Instead, we stake out a bench at Tuppancy Links, spray ourselves with Skin So Soft, and eat more Strawberry Shortcake in the exploding glow of a summer’s beginning.

Articles by Date from 2012