Rock Bottom Line || Handbasket to Heaven: Bell’s strawberries Take You There

Posted in Blogs, Culinary

BY HARRY ANDERSON
July 13, 2016

StrawberriesThe handbasket into which the world is rapidly going to hell seems to grow more dangerous by the minute. At such a rotten instant, it’s only natural for souls like me to seek other baskets going to better places. I’m relieved to have found mine over the past several weeks. In truth, I found not one but 12 baskets; they made up a delectable flat of Bell’s Farm strawberries. The contents of those containers have taken me from the earthly abyss to gustatory heaven.

For the non-cognoscenti, Bell’s Farm sits on 65 acres of beautiful farmland on West Beach Road just north of Libbey Road. It’s been owned and operated by the family of Jesse and Margaret Bell for 70 years, since they moved to Whidbey Island from Wapato in Eastern Washington. Jesse and Margaret’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren still own and work the farm today.

Ever since they started growing strawberries on Whidbey in 1946, the Bells have hired local kids as soon as school lets out in June to harvest the crop. At first, the entire harvest was taken to a Skagit cannery. But then, beginning in the 1970s, they began selling fresh berries in local stores. In the 1980s, as farmers’ markets in Coupeville and elsewhere became increasingly popular, Bell’s berries were a smash hit among freshness seekers. (Everybody in Coupeville today knows; if you want some Bell’s Farm berries at the Saturday Farmers’ Market during the short harvest in June, you’d better get there early or you’ll miss out.)

Since the 1970s, the Bells have also set aside a portion of their fields for those who want to pick their own berries. Bell’s “u-pick” has become a Whidbey cultural phenomenon that brings out entire families—including grandparents and kids as young as two or three—for a morning or afternoon of berry-picking and familial bonding. It turns “farm-to-table” into a tangible experience.

pickingWhat makes Bell’s strawberries so special? Ah, that is truly beyond my words. Only taste will tell you. I am old enough to remember when strawberries we bought in supermarkets were brilliant red and the size of a thumbnail. The shortcakes of my youth are still a sweet memory for me. But you had to get the berries home and eat or preserve them right away; they spoiled quickly.

That’s why our corporate food industry worked hard over the past 20 years to develop a fresh strawberry with long shelf life, capable of being grown in hothouses from Alberta to Chile, then shipped worldwide and able to sit for several days or more on the rack in the produce section.

What we get in our supermarkets today are pale imitations, often pallid in reddish color and gigantic in size—as big as four thumbs. Three or four modern Goliath strawberries are usually enough for an individual shortcake, but they’re hardly worth the effort to chop them up. They have a long shelf life but they have no taste. Chewing one is almost like chewing the recycled paper or plastic basket it came it.

Eating a strawberryThe Bell’s Farm strawberry season is so very short, usually no more than three weeks. But while it lasted this year, I was able to indulge my senses and my imagination in a pleasure without guilt. Shortcake every night. Berries on my cereal every morning. Fresh (not canned) jam on an English muffin with a latte in the afternoon. Strawberries mixed with fresh spinach with dinner. A berry or two popped in the mouth before bedtime. And, of course, a fresh strawberry in a glass of champagne with friends.

I did freeze four of the 12 baskets from the flat I bought. They are waiting for me whenever I need them. With that for reassurance, who cares where the hand basket is taking the rest of the world.

Once upon a time, Harry Anderson made an honest living as a reporter, editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in central Whidbey, where he spends his time gardening and ruminating on things that interest him.

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