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Strawberry Fields Forever

Spring is the best season in North Carolina. I miss the warm, sunny days, the blazing azaleas and the fragrant wisteria that perfumed the whole town of Chapel Hill when I lived there. But most of all, I miss the strawberry man.

Though it's been many years, I can still picture him clearly: a giant of a man wearing a bright red T-shirt and suspenders and cheerfully offering patrons of the Raleigh farmers' market samples of his berries every spring.

The farmer's strawberries were a delicious harbinger of a new season of fresh fruits and vegetables at the market. As the weeks passed, the berries would get plumper, redder and sweeter. In late April I would start by buying a pint, and by June, my husband and I would be loading a half a flat into our trunk each week (yes, that's a lot of strawberries for two people).

Although strawberries are available year round, there is nothing quite like the flavor of fresh, locally grown berries in the spring. That's because they are vine ripened, creating a scarlet red, remarkably juicy and succulent berry packed with natural sugars. They are a delight to both the eyes and the taste buds.

The United States produces more than 2 billion pounds of strawberries every year — which is a good thing, since 95 percent of Americans eat them. Although the majority are grown in California, nearly every state produces fresh strawberries at some point between May and July. So it shouldn't be too difficult to find them.

Strawberries have long been valued for their medicinal properties, beauty, flavor and fragrance. The ancient Romans ate wild strawberries to protect themselves against digestive ailments and melancholy.

It wasn't until the early 14th century that strawberries were formally cultivated in Europe. At that time, they were considered an aphrodisiac because of their heart shape and red color. In fact, newlyweds were traditionally served a soup of strawberries, sour cream and powdered sugar.

The strawberry, of the genus fragaria, is actually a member of the rose family. Fragaria comes from the Latin fragans, meaning odorous, and refers to the berry's fragrant flesh. So it's no surprise that during the Renaissance, strawberries were used to freshen one's breath. Perhaps no one admired strawberries' fragrance as much as Madam Tallien, a prominent socialite in Napoleon's court, who bathed in tubs filled with strawberries to keep her skin radiant and perfumed.

When European colonizers arrived in North America, native Indians were eating wild strawberries. They would mash the berries, mix them with corn meal and bake the mixture. Colonists created their own version of this recipe, giving birth to the classic American strawberry shortcake.

Because many early strawberries were not as sweet as today's, they were often made into jams and jellies that could be sweetened with sugar cane (a practice that dates to the 16th century, when Spanish colonists used sugar cane to preserve fruit).

The 18th century saw a major development in strawberry cultivation: North and South American varieties were crossbred, resulting in a larger, redder and sweeter berry — the modern-day strawberry. In the 19th century, these sweeter strawberries were paired with cream, which was considered a sumptuous dessert, and strawberries began regularly appearing in pie recipes. Then in the 20th century, strawberry ice cream and milkshakes became permanent fixtures of American cuisine.

Today, strawberries remain popular for jams, pie fillings, shortcake and ice cream desserts. They also have deliciously entered into the realm of the savory: They are featured in salads as well as salsas that accompany meats such as pork and chicken.

When selecting fresh strawberries, look for firm, glossy, red fruit with a fresh-looking green hull and no visible bruises. A tiny bruise today will most likely be a spoiled berry tomorrow. Fresh vine-ripened strawberries also are highly perishable and are best eaten the same day you buy them. However, they should last four to five days if placed unwashed, with the hull intact, in a paper-towel-lined plastic container in the refrigerator. For the fullest flavor, allow berries to come to room temperature before eating.

You also can freeze strawberries, which comes in handy if you buy a half a flat. Just remove the hull, rinse and pat dry, and place on a cookie sheet in the freezer. Once frozen, place berries in zip-lock bags, and enjoy year round. Remember, the consistency will be softer, so they are best used in smoothies, jams or sauces.

Wherever you live, do yourself a favor this spring. Find a local u-pick strawberry patch or farmers' market and experience the sweetness of strawberries. And while you're there, be on the lookout for your own strawberry man.

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Susan Russo