06/15/13 8:00am
06/15/2013 8:00 AM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Ripe strawberries at Patty’s Berries & Bunches in Mattituck.

Did you know that strawberries are the only fruit with seeds on the outside?

Or that strawberries are a member of the rose family indigenous to every continent save Africa and Australia plus New Zealand? Or that if you took the more than one billion strawberries California produces each year and laid them side by side they’d circle the globe several times?

Are you wondering why in heaven’s name I’m prattling on about freakin’ strawberries?

That’s a good question, actually. But as Father’s Day draws nigh, that means it’s strawberry season, a special time for fruitophiles, meself included. Apples are awesome, grapes great and peaches, um, peachy, but none of those seasons are as highly anticipated or cherished as the one that gives us the red, red conical fruit of the Fragaria ananassa plant.

Sure, having strawberries available in the supermarket for most of the winter diminishes the excitement somewhat, like watching “Elf” or some other Christmas movie in August. And when I was a kid, Ma Kelly, born in Manhattan and raised in Yonkers, thought it great country fun to take us little ones out into the middle of nowhere to pick strawberries. To this day I wonder why we were punished so.

There we were, pale skinned and freckled, on our hands and knobby knees in the dirt, scrounging for tiny little berries because the farmer barked at us to stay clear of the rows with the enticing big, luscious, juicy berries.

My mother-in-law lived for strawberry season, punctuating every evening meal during those too-few June days with homemade strawberry shortcake. Over the years, the dinners shrank in size until one year meat and vegetables vanished completely and strawberry shortcake was the only item on the menu.

From what I’m told, no one objected — ever.

But nobody makes a bigger deal about strawberries than the Mattituck Lions Club, which this weekend will put on the 59th annual Strawberry Festival at the aptly named Strawberry Fields, um, field on the North Road. One of the highlights is the naming of a new strawberry queen.

I’m not a Lion, I don’t grow strawberries and I don’t reside in Mattituck, but my family is forever linked with that event.

Ten years ago, daughter Caitlin, then a very serious and studious high school junior, surprised me and the Mrs. by putting her name in contention for strawberry queen. Hey, why not? It’s not like the national beauty pageants that critics love to hate on as sexist, exploitive and demeaning to women. There’s no swimsuit competition and no one expects the contestants to pledge their lives with dubious sincerity to securing world peace. It’s just a fun, little retro North Fork event, a cousin to Riverhead’s equally popular Polish Town queen contest, a key component of the Polish Town Street Fair each August.

And wouldn’t you know it, Cait became a finalist! No, no, I don’t mean to sound surprised. It’s just that it was so out of character for a girl who, at age 9 or so, requested a Tarot card reading at a Renaissance Fair in Maryland and, when asked if she was interested in boys and clothes, deadpanned, “No, money and careers.” The card reader damn near keeled over.

But she donned a long white dress and attended the Lions Club dinner with the other finalists. The young ladies went from table to table introducing themselves to the people whose votes would determine the next queen. Later, each reached into a goldfish bowl and pulled out a question to be answered off the cuff.

When one young lady got “What’s your favorite cartoon character?” I thought this a cakewalk. Then Cait drew her question: “How would you describe a rainbow to a blind person?”

Hoo-boy. Yes, I’m biased (a newspaper editor?) but I think she acquitted herself well. Can’t say I actually heard her response over the sound of me nervously tapping my teaspoon against my front teeth.

Alas, she was not destined for strawberry royalty. Instead, the tiara went to some girl from Laurel. Oh well, she had fun and an interesting experience.

But wouldn’t you know it? Years later that girl from Laurel, Lindsay Lessard — whose mom, Diane, had been queen in 1978 — became family upon marrying our firstborn, Ryan Patrick Kelly.

Since both my kids are redheads and there are strawberry queen finalists and winners on both sides, it’s possible, if not probable, that any grandkids could be “gingers” and perhaps include a queen candidate.

We never did have a priest in the family, or a doctor, but I think Ma’s happy we’ve got at least one queen, and maybe more.

tkelly@timesreview.com

06/12/13 10:30am
06/12/2013 10:30 AM

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Strawberries from Patty’s Berries & Bunches in Mattituck on Tuesday.

A little — OK, a lot — of rain put a damper on the much anticipated North Fork strawberry season now underway.

Local farm stands said they’re pressing on despite heavy rainfall that has beleaguered the region of late and is threatening to make the berries rot before they can be sold.

“It’s not prime weather for a super strawberry crop just yet,” said Katie Reeve, the farm stand manager at Bay View Farm Market in Aquebogue. Ms. Reeve said Bay View’s strawberry patch hasn’t been opened to the public yet because of rain and that she expects it to open this weekend.

“The rain makes [the berries] almost melt a little faster,” she said. “They need a lot of sun and heat to make them nice and red and super sweet.”

[Related: How about a strawberry rhubarb pie?]

Eve Kaplan, the owner of Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market in Riverhead, had similar things to say about the strawberries at her U-Pick patch.

“They kind of get really soft and eventually they get gooey,” Ms. Kaplan said.

Tom Wickham, whose family has owned Wickham Fruit Stand in Cutchogue since the 1940s, said harvesting strawberries on the North Fork has always been a challenge. He said the season only lasts about three weeks.

“You can buy strawberries from the West Coast for months in a time at supermarkets because those farmers don’t have to deal with heavy rain,” Mr. Wickham said. “In our case, the rain always seems to be followed by hot, humid weather, just when the crop is being harvested.”

The result is berries ripen suddenly and then become soft.

“There’s nothing new to this,” Mr. Wickham said. “That’s been the nature of strawberry growing here on Long Island for at least the last 50 years. Every summer it’s the same thing. The hot, humid weather is actually worse than the rain in turn of softening up the fruit and making it susceptible to rot.”

Growers can spray fungicide on strawberries to help shield them against the disease organisms that cause rot, Mr. Wickham said, but it’s a practice he finds costly, with marginal benefit to the fruit.

“Growers of strawberries here have learned to live with, and consumers seem to understand, that they are wonderful, flavorful berries,” Mr. Wickham said. “They’re not big but they’re packed with flavor.”

ryoung@timesreview.com