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Random Tue Apr 15 2008

Strawberry Panic

Last Saturday, looking for diversion from the dreary return of the wintery weather, my partner and I went on an excursion to a local Costco store. Ever since my mom got a membership that provided me with a "family" card to flash at the entrance, it's been our perverse pleasure to go to the behemoth of a store. We would drop our jaws at the inflatable playthings that are roomier than my old apartment in Tokyo, or peel our eyes at the one-gallon cartons of whipping cream (which packs a whipping--no, whopping--96,000 calories, according to my quick math). We've found some good deals over the years, like European cookies that show up in the holiday season and the chocolate truffles with a nice kick of caramelized sugar, but this time, what we found came with a surprise. I'm calling it the "strawberry panic."

The story started when we spotted metal carts loaded with young plants. Among thorny roses and wretched grapevines, there was a bunch of strawberry plants. In a bundle of four tall plastic pots, they were priced at $15 or so. That was a much better deal than a pot for $8 I'd seen at Home Depot, and the green leaves were happily pushing up through the holes in the lids, suggesting that they were in a good shape. Some were even starting to produce little white flowers. Tantalized by the prospect of home-grown strawberries, we picked up a bundle. We also picked up a gigantic, 55-pound bag of potting soil (which was about as limp and maneuverable as a dead body), thinking that we'd go through it eventually, maybe in a few years. We didn't know this yet, but this was a very, very good decision.

When I started to take the strawberries out of the pots, I noticed blue elastic bands around their roots. Why did they need elastic bands, I wondered. Then, to my horror, I realized that each pot contained not one plant, but at least ten little seedlings tightly packed, held together with those very elastic bands. I looked a pot. There, right in the middle, there was an ominous number. 15. Followed by a word "plants." I had four pots of fifteen plants each. That meant, of course, I had 60 strawberry plants, waiting to be taken out of the crowded pots, separated carefully and planted. Oh, dear.

Now, like many city dwellers, we don't have a yard. The instruction on the containers demanded that I plant the baby strawberries at least 8 inches apart--strawberries spread by space-hogging runners--and looking at the impressive mass of roots on each plant, I could believe that. After a bit of cajoling, my partner managed to push a pot off to his sister with a yard, but there was still 45 of them. From the planters on the back porch, I cleaned out the slimy biomass that, until sometime last year, had been some happy plants I couldn't recall any more. That gave me three pots. Nowhere near enough. They filled up with strawberries from just one pot. We briefly considered the unused strip along the Metra rail, but trashed the idea.

Strawberry Panic

My back was hurting from leaning over for an hour. I slumped on the couch. My partner handed me a beer--a Goose Island that we also picked up at Costco. Maybe this is working out perfectly--we bought plenty of soil for the plants, and plenty of beef for me. That was the last thought before I went to bed. Thirty homeless strawberry plants, weeping under the moonlight on my windowsill, plagued my dream (no, they didn't).

Next day, I ran to a dollar store and bought eight planters. By the time I was filling the third with soil, my movements had become mechanical, automatic. To the rhythm of danceable Indian pop songs on an Internet radio station, I scooped out the soil, placed the plants, fanned out the roots, covered them with more soil. It was getting a bit fun. When I ran out of the strawberries, there were eleven planters crowding our sunroom and the 55-pound bag of soil was half empty. I demoted an armchair to the foyer, hauled in a desk and placed all the pots along the southern windows where they'd get the best light. Now the sunroom looks like a jungle in training.

Looking at the little green leaves unfold at the tips of ivory-colored fuzzy stems, I dream of the hundreds of bushels of strawberries that might inundate us in a few months. And if that ever did, it would be a welcome surprise, followed by a year's supply of strawberry jam--quite fittingly for its wholesale origin.

-----
I've found nice descriptions of different strawberry cultivars here. It turns out that the two cultivars included in the Costco bundle--Earliglow and Red Chief--are both planted widely for commercial production. I might get a ton of fruits, then, after all...

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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