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Chris Rosenblum: Strawberry season brings heavenly treats

I woke to the sound of my wife calling up the stairs. Was I still dreaming?

It was hard to tell.

“Who’d like some breakfast?” she said, yelling to my dozing sons and me. “I made strawberry shortcake.”

Right. Had to be one of those early morning, think-you’re-awake states. Any second, my phone alarm would snap me into reality.

My wife shouted again. I opened one eye, then the other. Something smelled very good, very real, and I padded groggily downstairs to find my boys had beaten me to a kitchen table of beautiful sights.

Before me sat bowls full of lopsided, red and white towers: Michele’s celebrated strawberry shortcake.

Usually, she reserves her gooey layers of sliced strawberries, real whipped cream and homemade, crunchy shortbread — my favorite dessert not containing pie crust — for muggy summer evening treats.

This time, she got up early on a Friday morning and noticed we had fresh but perishable local berries. We had cream.

She had a notion.

Out came the baking supplies, and we had a family first — spoonfuls of pure delight before 7 a.m., a decadent start to a special month.

June has meant strawberries — real ones, not those pallid supermarket imposters — to me ever since I came to central Pennsylvania 21 years ago.

As the school year closes, a wonderful window opens. For a few weeks, leafy patches on farms hide gems ripe for the picking. Less than an hour’s labor can net baskets or buckets filled to the brims.

Weekend strawberry excursions soon became a tradition for my wife and me. We worked our way up rows, gently pushing aside leaves to pluck berries shielded from view and tucked close to the soil, leaving the pale-tipped specimens for another day.

Everyone’s naturally drawn to the giants, but we learned that the smaller ones tend to be more flavorful.

We also discovered a dependable attraction for visiting nieces and nephews from California. Before we started our own family, we knew the pros and cons of preschool pickers. They’re enthusiastic and low to the ground, but on the other hand, they generally eat more than they save — a bit embarrassing when we brought little stained faces to the register when paying.

Another lesson, a fundamental truth about strawberry picking, quickly sunk in. It’s easy to get carried away, collect several pounds and face a dilemma. Unless they wind up in jam jars or the freezer, fresh berries don’t last long before mold claims them.

That’s how strawberry shortcake entered my life.

I can’t think of a better way to whittle down red mounds, and Michele has the shortcake recipe up to the task: like a sweet biscuit and far superior to ordinary pound cake. We still follow the same routine. Picking trips lead to strawberry shortcake orgies, everyone gorging on monster portions, sometimes indulging in seconds, then sinking into post-dessert torpors.

So we consume a day’s worth of calories at one sitting. Some things are worth letting yourself go.

I’m sure I had strawberry shortcake in my youth, but clearly it left not much of an impression. During summer vacations in Maine, I picked quarts of wild blueberries and blackberries, but strawberries were found plastic-wrapped in produce sections, not outdoors.

Now, I know the real deal. I appreciate the gift that June gives, how lucky we are to be able to drive for just a few minutes and pick berries to our heart’s content. That the opportunity is limited makes it even better — a refreshing break from our always-available consumer society.

Some days patches can be crowded, sure, but there’s always plenty to go around. A little competition for berries never bothers me anyway because I see it as evidence of a common bond. Regardless of social, political and religious beliefs, we share a love for one of life’s simple pleasures.

That mutual taste, part of our local culture, will bring hundreds to the 34th annual Strawberry Festival 4-8 p.m. June 20 in Lemont.

Volunteers will get into the strawberry spirit the night before. They’ll spend about two hours hulling and slicing 186 quarts, or 22 flats, of local berries, which then will be stored in Sue Smith’s freezer near the festival grounds.

“Then as we need them we take them across the street,” said Smith, an organizer who remembers the festival’s humble origins.

“When we first started this, we picked the strawberries, so it’s come a long way.”

This year, the festivities on the Village Green will include live music, pony rides, children’s art activities and tours of the historic Granary. Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society volunteers will sell “speeder” rides and, new this year, short rail trips on a “pumper” hand-operated vehicle. A bicycle-powered blender will make strawberry smoothies.

But the star attraction promises to be the strawberries, ice cream and shortcake — or other kinds of cake, if you prefer — for $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 3-12, with the proceeds benefiting the Lemont Village Association.

Smith said the festival supplier’s strawberries are ripening later than usual because of the harsh winter, but that’s fine: It’ll extend the season. She’s expecting about 600 visitors.

“That’ll use up all the strawberries and ice cream,” she said. “We have to stop after that. When we run out, we stop.”

Before then, we might have to dig into four bowls ourselves. After all, we only have so many days to enjoy strawberry shortcake properly, and too few as it is.

It’ll feel odd having it after 7 a.m., but we’ll manage.

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