Thursday, May 24, 2012

Blueberries: Summertime Treat in the South

Does anything make summertime more enjoyable than eating fresh blueberries, particularly those that you picked yourself? Chilled, fresh blueberries are such a delightful treat on a hot day. Visiting a you-pick-it location helps you appreciate the berries much more than simply buying them at a grocery store.

You-pick-it locations are plentiful in the South.

Because blueberries are grown throughout the South, being able to pick them as they ripen is easy. Most states, such as my home state of North Carolina, help by offering maps and directories of you-pick-locations on their agricultural websites. (North Carolina has more than 100 you-pick blueberry locations.) In addition, local you-pick-it farms get extra publicity in the South when official state festivals celebrate the blueberry in late May or in June.

The calyx forms the shape
of a five-pointed star.
Picking fresh blueberries helps to connect to the culture and history of the region. One of the few fruits native to North America, the blueberry has been important for sustaining life in this region for centuries. Ripe blueberries were gathered in the forests by several Native American tribes before they also began to cultivate them. In addition to being a food source, the berries themselves and parts of the plant were used as medicine. Even the calyx, the blossom end of a berry that forms the shape of a five-pointed star, has contributed to regional lore as the legend about the Great Spirit sending “star berries” during a famine to relieve the hunger of children was retold.

Although lowbush berries (often referred to as “wild blueberries”) are native to other parts of the world, highbush blueberries are native to the North America. Even though more than 38 states grow the blueberry, only rabbiteye varieties (Vaccinium ashei) are native to the American South (from North Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas). These varieties are called rabbiteye, according to Horticulture magazine, because before turning blue they turn pink (like the color of a white rabbit). With all the varieties grown in North America, about 90% of the worldwide blueberry harvest comes from Canada and the United States. 

In my home state of North Carolina the highbush varieties can be grown anywhere from the mountains to the coast. In addition, rabbiteye varieties (which are more drought and heat resistant) can be grown in the piedmont and coastal plain.

You-pick-it bushes ready in North Carolina in late May

With the health benefits of the blueberry continually being extolled, it continues to increase in popularity. The average U.S. adult consumption has almost doubled in the last ten years. The blueberry is now the second most popular berry in the United States (second only to strawberries).

About half of each year’s production is eaten fresh rather than processed. (Fresh production has outpaced process production since 2002.) In addition, eating blueberries raw is recommended by many health experts because this way provides the best flavor and greatest nutritional benefits.

Before: Scale before picking
After:  Reward (8 pounds) after an hour  of picking

Although blueberries make great cobblers, breads, and jellies, they are thoroughly enjoyable by the handful when they have been recently picked. Because they are 85 percent water (compared to the higher and more recognized percentage of 92 for the watermelon), they are a great way to satisfy a thirst as well as meet the recommended daily water intake. That’s why visiting a you-pick-it location is so worthwhile to celebrate the start of summer.

If you don't have time to pick your own, at least buy
directly from the grower at a stand or farmers' market.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Strawberry Adventure: Finding the World’s Largest

Want to go on a strawberry adventure? As spring days become warmer, the trip can be a visit to a festival, a you-pick-it farm, or a noteworthy strawberry landmark. Strawberry ice cream, shortcake, or fresh berries themselves are the rewards for making the visit, particularly in the American South where one place claims to have the world’s largest strawberry.

A fruit with a long history
The only fruit with the seeds on the outside rather than the inside, the strawberry has been a favorite of not only Southerners but others around the world because its sweetness, juicy texture, and bright red color are unmatched. The history of the strawberry dates back to Romans who gathered wild strawberries, but it wasn’t cultivated in Europe until the 1300s. Although it had become a common garden plant by the 1500s, the strawberry from eastern North America, introduced to Europe in the early 1600s, is the variety that is credited by developing today’s big-fruited strawberry.

This variety was popular with Native Americans who mixed crushed berries with cornmeal that was baked as strawberry bread. After trying this bread, according to some scholars, the colonists modified the recipe and created an early version of strawberry shortcake.  

Strawberry shortcake is frequently featured at regional strawberry festivals. Michigan claims the “national” strawberry festival, although many states, particularly in the South, celebrate with at least one festival, such as in Georgia, South Carolina, and West Virginia, and some festivals were inaugurated well before Michigan began its event in 1976.

North Carolina even has two: the Carolina festival in Wallace and the N.C. festival in Chadbourn. In fact, Chadbourn, NC, considers itself as the strawberry capital of the world because it claims the largest one-day shipment of strawberries – 180 rail boxcar loads – picked by 15,000 workers between one sunrise and sunset as well as a historic festival that began as early as 1926.

Florida began its festival four years later in Plant City, which claims to be the winter strawberry capital of the world. Lasting more than 11 days with about half a million visitors, the Florida festival is not only huge but also the earliest of the year, sometimes starting as early as late February.

You-pick-it farms help promote
local economy.
Rather than being satisfied with attending a festival, many strawberry fans visit a you-pick-it farm to select fresh berries each season. Strawberry associations in states such as North Carolina help by providing strawberry farm locators online.

When I was searching for a “strawberry event” to attend, I became interested in finding the world’s largest strawberry at The Berry Patch near Ellerbe, NC (population of 1,021), and I made it my destination one day. Because The Berry Patch, which began as a small strawberry farm in 1995, is owned by a family whose last name appropriately is Berry, I thought that it should be worth the trip.

The world's largest strawberry (actually an ice cream stand) at The Berry Patch in Ellerbe, NC

All homemade -- but
strawberry tops the list.
What I found was not a farm but an ice cream stand in the shape of a huge strawberry about 20 feet tall. When I arrived, several people were waiting in line to place their orders while others who had already been served were walking with cones or cups and looking over fresh produce from the local area for sale in the market area. Although The Berry Patch offers 19 homemade flavors, why pick any other than strawberry? It was definitely a winner and the most popular choice.

Although easily seen from the highway,
signs point to the new location.
The Berry Patch is easily seen from the highway although it had been in a much more visible location near the Berry’s farm. The N.C. state government took that property by eminent domain to construct Interstate 73-74, and Lee Berry, the owner, had to move the huge strawberry stand, which had been built in 2002, two miles north to keep serving his customers, many who are on their way to or from the beach.  It took eight hours to get the four-ton berry stand onto a mover’s truck. Because it was so wide and no traffic could pass, state troopers had to escort it on the slow journey to the new location.

Market area with local produce
Visiting the “world’s largest strawberry” was well worth the trip because the homemade ice cream is excellent. It clearly surpasses a competing “world’s largest strawberry” claimed by Strawberry Point, Iowa, (population 1,463) that is only 15 feet high and stands in front of the town’s city hall without any homemade strawberry ice cream to offer. Knowing that the 20-foot berry stand required a police escort for its move made it that much more noteworthy to visit.