When I think of strawberries I think of summer, but really strawberries are a springtime fruit. They are the fruit that marks the end of the fallow period when we are reduced to eating nothing but clementines and last season’s apples. With their bright red color and sweet perfume, they break the dullness of wintertime and announce that better times lie ahead. They are the fruit that are the harbingers of summer.
And yet, my memories of strawberries are planted firmly in summer. Growing up in the Midwest, I remember strawberries arriving on the scene later than here in the Mid-Atlantic. Or maybe it’s just my memory playing tricks on me. To a child, of course, the late spring of early June is indistinguishable from the official onset of summer towards the end of the month. Once school is out, it is summer, no matter the calendar.
Strawberries—and here I am really talking about Strawberry Shortcake—marked the beginning of summer. In our house, they were cause for their own special day of celebration.
Whether it was a feast born of the lean times of the Depression era or just merely an excuse to eat dessert for dinner, my mother carried over her childhood tradition into her own family and once a year announced that we would have nothing but all-you-can-eat Strawberry Shortcake for supper. Imagine the childhood delight on hearing that pronouncement every year. To me, it always seemed unplanned—a surprise that was revealed at the last moment for maximum effect. It worked every time.
With our eyes as big as saucers, my sisters and I would sit down to bowls piled high with whipped cream on top of shortcake made soft by the juices of strawberries that had been macerating in sugar. Those syrupy juices were essential to a perfect bite of shortcake, strawberry and whipped cream. (The perfect bite being the goal of the entire endeavor.)
And because there was nothing else to eat, we always had seconds and left the table with our stomachs aching from our gluttony. For my sisters and me it was the closest we were ever going to get to the proverbial Christmas in July.
I have no way of knowing whether our annual all-you-can-eat Strawberry Shortcake suppers delighted my mother or not. My mother was not the focus when I sat down to my bowl of strawberry happiness. Did I have enough strawberries and whipped cream to go with every bite of shortcake? The perfect bite is serious business and my attention could not be diverted to record my mother’s mood. Still, she must have enjoyed turning out a relatively drama-free meal—no one was going to have to be urged to clean her plate.
I can still see the five of us, seated at our round, colonial-style wood table in the kitchen eating from the summer dinnerware my mother always dutifully trotted out once the weather turned warmer. The square-shaped plates and bowls came in mix and match solid shades of gray, burgundy and forest green plastic. The strawberries were served out of her large stainless steel mixing bowl with a little ring on the side that clanked every time the bowl was picked up. (That set of nesting stainless steel bowls with the little rings on the rim survived well beyond my childhood and I never could figure out the purpose of those rings other than to add to the cacophony of my mother in the kitchen.)
I have never met anyone who doesn’t like strawberries (and by extension Strawberry Shortcake). Unlike it’s spring cousin, rhubarb, strawberries are a sure bet. Especially when served with whipped cream. And shortcake of course.
Now about that shortcake. I grew up with shortcake made from Bisquick. There I have said it. My mother made her shortcake biscuits from a box. Now here comes the even bigger confession: I do the same. Call it laziness or call it a desire to recreate my childhood taste memories, but that’s what I do. That said, I have discovered (by accident when I had nothing but heavy cream on hand) that shortcake biscuits made with cream instead of milk paradoxically make for a much lighter texture.
Of course I redeem myself by making homemade whipped cream. And again, I follow my mother’s example by adding a ½ teaspoon of vanilla and a rounded teaspoon or so of powdered sugar to the cream before I whip it.
Sadly, though, I never serve it as a standalone meal, which is a shame. Most likely it’s because I married in mid-life and never had children of my own. The idea of eating dessert for dinner is just not the same without kids.
We recently had family visiting us and I made Strawberry Shortcake for dessert. The two little boys, both under the age of six, made short work of it, even after a decent dinner with all the requisite components of protein and (at least) a bite of something green. They barely looked up from their plates as they shoveled in the shortcake, strawberries and whipped cream. And we didn’t hear a peep out of them the whole time. In fact, it was the adults who were making all the noise as we screeched with laughter at how quickly they gobbled up their dessert.
Huh, I thought to myself, my mother (and hers before her) may have been on to something. Strawberry Shortcake for dinner makes up for a whole lot of food that you were otherwise forced to eat against your will. Maybe it’s one of those secret insurance policies mothers keep in their back pocket to ensure their kids will always carry fond memories of them into adulthood. When your mouth is full of Strawberry Shortcake, it’s hard to be mad at your mother.