Every week, in an effort to celebrate the bounty of Mother Nature’s best, the Berkeley Farmers’ Market offers samples of whatever fruit or vegetable is deigned to be the most representative of that particular season. May celebrated the glory, magic, and lush juicy ripeness that is the strawberry. Although some varieties of strawberries are grown year-round, the strawberry is, without compare, the most luscious springtime fruit of them all. Together with the strawberry’s springtime boyfriend and vegetable counterpart, the fabulous and phallic asparagus, there are no better representatives of spring in all her budding, dewy radiance. Blueberry and raspberry lovers: This ain’t about you.
In some ways, the Berkeley Farmers’ Market seems like any other farmers’ market, and yet it is different in at least a few key ways. Where the market in Jack London Square seems to cater mostly to strolling tourists who can be found looking quizzically at the tangled bunches of emerald-bright kohlrabi and pale stalks of exotic jicama, in Berkeley the vendors not only expect their customers to know their callaloo from their spinach, but they think it is their duty to inform the consumer exactly where and how their food is grown. And since using brand-new bags like the kind that union-busting Safeway uses to bag its scab groceries is always bound to make ecology-conscious shoppers feel guilty — especially when sacking organic food items — a thoughtful bucket at the market’s entrance had used paper bags so farmers’ market shoppers could stroll around feeling okay about themselves.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a sign at the entrance proclaimed “Strawberry Tastings.” Tables on both sides of the makeshift aisle smelled like basil, garlic, apricots, and other things reminiscent of an old-fashioned roadside produce market, whether amid the cornfields of Brentwood or the garlic-scented Gilroy flatlands. Still, the table where the strawberry samplings were taking place was found easily. A little crowd of people was gathered around the table, picking up crimson berries and popping them into their mouths like Judy Garland with a bottle of Seconal.
All of the strawberries being tasted on that day were grown organically, without the pesticides used by most commercial farmers. “If you were going to eat one organic fruit, you want to make sure that it’s a strawberry,” said Kirk Lumpkin, a cofounder of the farmers’ market, who was hosting the booth. The reason why, Lumpkin explained, is that strawberries tend to absorb chemicals more easily than other fruits because of their tender flesh. “Most commercial strawberry farmers spray their fields with methyl bromide, which is extremely toxic to everything, both strawberries and farm workers.”
On that particular Tuesday, four different farms were selling strawberries. There was the Catalan/Avalost farm, which Lumpkin said was started by former migrant farmworkers. It was joined by Lucero Farms, the tremendously popular Full Belly Farm, and Swanton Farm, which also offered delectable-looking strawberry preserves.
Compared to the huge strawberries found at mega-grocers such as Albertsons and Safeway, all four farms’ strawberries were smaller. “The commercial strawberries, although they’re huge, have more water content than organic ones,” Lumpkin said. All the berries at the farmers’ market were of the “Chandler” or “Sea-scape” varieties. Both Swanton and Full Belly offered Chandler strawberries, while Lucero and Catalan/Avalost sold the smaller Seascape variety. Food Fetish liked both kinds, but found the Seascape berries sweeter.
Lumpkin, who is protective of his patrons, nonetheless granted a nosy investigative journalist permission to interview the berry-evaluating shoppers, if they so desired. There was not a lot of controversy on the subject. Asking people to compare ripe, juicy, succulently fresh strawberries is like asking five-year-olds whom they would rather have at their party, Santa Claus or Batman? (Obviously, both would make splendid guests.) Small children clutching great hunks of goat’s milk cheese and gnarled old Berkeleyans alike agreed that there was no possible way to choose the better strawberry.
One shopper, Marion, who hailed from faraway East Oakland, and before that, Germany, agreed that the strawberries at the farmers’ market tasted much better than the fare at the big markets. She had sampled both the Full Belly Chandler variety and the Lucero Farms Seascape and was having difficulty deciding which one was her favorite. In accented English, she proclaimed the contest a tie. “I love them both,” she declared passionately, without a trace of guilt. “I love the farmers’ market. We have nothing like that in East Oakland.”
Another, more opinionated shopper, Marty, averred that she preferred the Seascape strawberries, especially those of the Lucero brand, because they still had their stem attached, which gave them a sexy, back-to-the-land quality. “Those are a little bitter,” she said, pointing to the Swanton Farms Chandler berries.
Down the aisle, past the guy playing guitar, and the avocados, and the green garlic, and the dusty reddish beets, and everything else, was the booth of Lucero Farms, which featured baskets and baskets of fresh, lovely strawberries. Many of the berries grown in California come from Watsonville, one of the nation’s most prolific strawberry-growing regions. But Lucero’s plants do well in hot and dry Lodi, even though their original home was the foggy “Seascape” area of Aptos, a few miles south of Santa Cruz.
Ben Lucero, the proprietor of Lucero Farm with his wife, Karen, noted that he often sees different kinds of strawberries in the Central Valley, but they don’t often seem to make it out of the area, which is a darn cryin’ shame. “I was wondering,” he mused over the baskets of strawberries and pallets of peaches, “why is it that there are so many different varieties of strawberries, but there is usually only one kind at the store?” And then, he disappeared into the crowd, back to the glamorous business of frantically emptying paper plates of used strawberry hulls and stems at the strawberry-tasting booth.
Lumpkin had posed a question that we had all been asking ourselves: Why aren’t all the many varieties of strawberries in the markets? Where are they being hidden? What in God’s name is going on?
Karen echoed his sentiment. “We grow forty different kinds of tomatoes and twelve different kinds of squash,” she said. “We’d like to grow more, but we only have two and a half acres on the farm for strawberries. For us, it’s a small crop, but I wonder why other people aren’t growing more.”
Where were some of the other strawberries touted on the engrossing and exhaustive strawberry Web site of the University of Illinois Extension Service, such as the Pajaro, with its “symmetrical shape and good color and flavor”; the Selva, with its “large fruit berries” and “dry, neutral characteristics”; and what about the Commander, whose name says it all?
Instead of visualizing whirled peas like the bumper sticker suggests, maybe we could visualize a world where there are more than two varieties of strawberries to choose from. Ah, what a happy world that would be.