If your reality rarely lives up to your expectations, spring is your opportunity to feel rewarded for managing your disappointments gracefully during the rest of the year. As our Hood River Valley, both dramatic and bucolic, sheds its dreary attitude and reveals its true calling, we are infused with a sense of promise and potential. We can see and feel that, if nothing else, life is about to get a whole lot more tasty.
It is really our only guarantee in life—the sun will rise and spring will come. This perennial truth offers deliverance but also the risk of disappointment lest we squander its gifts. I have more grasshopper than ant in me than I would like to admit, but my biggest worry is missing out on flavor. I can’t be alone when I look back at the end of June and think: Oh no, I never made strawberry shortcake! This thought can depress me more than the tenth in a string of cold, rainy afternoons in January.
One of the virtues of fresh, local strawberries, is that they deliver equal parts panache and soul. I think of them as the Jackie Onassis of fruit. When they are picked ripe and truly fresh, they are shiny like polished chrome, a bright cheery red, and are both resplendent and darling in their micro polka-dots and Sunday-best hat. When sliced or quartered, they delight you with their display of ingenious organic design. Other berries can start to feel like one-trick ponies in comparison (cough…blueberries…cough cough).
My appreciation for perhaps the most beloved berry—strawberries—did not begin in my childhood like most. I thought strawberries were supposed to taste like the Smuckers jam that was smeared on my Wonder bread pb-and-j sandwiches (it was Pittsburgh in the ‘70s folks). Instead, it began when I was first playing adult. I was fresh out of college and had landed a job in a big advertising agency in San Francisco. Never did I feel more like a fraud and a hero in the same moment than in my first few years at FCB making television commercials for Clorox bleach products.
One weekend, our team of grunts and client hand-holders was invited up to our Creative Director’s weekend home in Sonoma county for a team-building sort of affair. Although our CD, Kenny, was probably well into his 60s at the time, he had the kind of cool that just could not be helped. He would ride into work in his Jag with his Rhosdesian Ridgeback’s head sticking out of the sunroof like Dino from the Flintstones, collecting friends and admirers along the way. He parked illegally on the curb and never got a ticket. And had his own personal espresso machine in his office. (In the ‘90s, that was novel.)
He was rumored to have a rich and storied history in “real” advertising in New York City. He even claimed it was his idea for the popular ‘got milk?’ campaign. A rival agency was producing the campaign at the time, but I believed him. Because, even though he was hawking toilet cleanser and steel wool pot scrubbers, he could rattle off stories of hanging with Bowie at Studio 54 and once told me he knew I wore cotton underpants just by the look in my eye.
So the normal awkwardness that one might feel of being forced to socialize on your precious day off with people who were way cooler than you and toyed with you as a form of entertainment on slow days, was at eleven on the dial.
Despite my junior status at the agency, I felt, after merely a year of overspending at the city’s farmer’s markets and dining on expense accounts, like a budding food aficionado. I was in the middle of an awakening—far from cynical but no longer easily impressed. This I knew at the time and still believe: David Bowie himself can show up at your party with a tall drink of supermodel on his arm, but people will recall it with lackluster and think of you simply as social climber if the food you serve is “meh.”
So I went in with both a feeling of unworthiness and my inner critic on full charge. The setting delivered, all the way down to the hand-crocheted alpaca-yarn hammock swinging between the bay leaf trees. It was a shingled “cabin” that could have commanded a feature in Architectural Digestas easily as one titled “Cozy Wine Country Hideaways” in Sunset Magazine. And the food, I wish I could report otherwise, was phenomenal in that way that some cooks and entertainers have of making it all seem totally remarkable and completely effortless. (Are people born with this?)
After attending a world-class cooking school, interning at Chez Panisse, and having several of my own food businesses, I now know that there is no great professionally-guarded trade secret or recessive gene behind this. You simply let the ingredients do the work for you. In other words, using exceptional ingredients and letting them shine will notch your cooking (and perhaps your reputation) up ten levels compared to a fancy recipe with a novel presentation that is made with mediocre ones. The reality has to meet the expectation or people walk away feeling indulged but unfulfilled.
The dessert Kenny and his wife served that day crosses the ’t’ on this point. It was a huge earthenware bowl filled to overflowing with straight-from-the-field local strawberries. No accompanying bowls even. You were to pick them out with your fingers, savoring one at a time. And when you did, you discovered not just their juicy, sweet perfection, but a little surprise that you wouldn’t have guessed they would benefit from. It still strikes me today as a fitting tribute and treatment of this universally-beloved fruit.
For the next few weeks, opportunities abound to get yourself some deliciousness—the kind that shows up for a fleeting, rapturous moment. Your taste memories need replenished lest they fade completely and you certainly deserve a break from mediocrity. That is a big reason why we live here after all. If you can’t make it to the u-pick fields, make it to the farmer’s market. Find the biggest bowl you have, invite a bunch of friends (or rockstars, what-have-you) over, and give this #nonrecipe a try
DEAD-COOL PARTY STRAWBERRIES A LA KENNY DUDWICK
1 - 2 pounds of freshly-picked strawberries that are ripe but on the firm side
(They can be picked up to one day before you will serve them. Keep out of the refrigerator if possible.)
1/2 cup of Cointreau liqueur
Handling your berries very gently, lightly rinse them to remove any sand. Let dry in a cool place over paper towels. Refrigerate if they are on the verge of mushy, but bring them back to room temperature before serving.
Place them in a shallow container, sprinkle the Cointreau over them and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Toss very gently a few times, every hour or so. The should macerate in the Cointreau for at least 2 hours and up to 6.
Remove them with washed hands to your serving bowl or platter, pouring off any extra liqueur (er…into a glass reserved just for you and your foodie bestie).
Supply some large paper napkins for guests to wipe the boozy juice off their chins and finger tips.
(A separate bowl with unmascerated fruit is must if there are kids around.)