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Last November, my wife drove down to visit her parents for a week in Gulf Shores, Alabama. She returned with a white Styrofoam cooler with red letters across the front, “Rouses Market.” Melissa presented the cooler to me. “Happy birthday, honey!”
My first thought was, “You bought me a disposable cooler for my birthday? Um, how nice.” When I took the cooler from her, it was fairly heavy. Much to my surprise, inside the cooler was three pounds of fresh Gulf shrimp on ice. “Wow! This is awesome, babe. Thank you.”
Now, if you want the best walleye, northern pike, or lake trout, y’all from the south need to come to the north shore, eh? Our coldwater lakes have the best freshwater fish. But clearly the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted, comes from the southern states along the Gulf of Mexico.
I didn’t care if it was mid-November in northern Minnesota. I cleared the snow from the deck, pulled out the Weber and began the feast. Imagine, fresh gulf shrimp, in Minnesota’s winter weather. Now that’s a northerner’s delight!
Just five months later, Melissa and I were going to Picayune, Mississippi, to get our new puppy, Nova Mae - less than thirty minutes from the Gulf. After that we would travel 120 miles along the coast. Coincidentally, I brought a cooler with us. There would be plenty of opportunities for me to stock the cooler with fresh Gulf shrimp to bring home.
Our trip would include a five-day visit to her parents’ house in South Carolina. We were still over a week from home and that’s a long time to keep fresh shrimp on ice. I was afraid it wouldn’t survive the trip and I gave up on the idea of taking more fresh shrimp home.
Instead, we stopped at a restaurant in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Melissa had blackened fish tacos, I had the large shrimp boil, with fresh gulf shrimp, spicy sausage, corn on the cob and boiled red potatoes. This is a common meal in the south, but to a northerner, this was a real delight.
After visiting in South Carolina, we started the long drive home to Minnesota. The weather in Greer was cool, by southern folk’s standards, but to a couple of Minnesotans, temperatures in the upper sixties were just right. We had been watching the weather at home, and knew we had twelve more inches of snow while we were away.
Less than twenty minutes into our journey, I started seeing signs for fresh strawberries. The middle of April seemed way too early for fresh fruit. “Surely someone leaves those signs up year-round,” I said, not seeing any produce stands. Not long after, I saw newer signs, “Fresh Strawberries. Open Now.” I took my foot off the gas and started to slow down – just in case.
“What are you doing,” Melissa asked.
“There’s a strawberry stand ahead,” I answered. I’m sure my eyes were bulging out of my head when I saw those tables topped with white buckets, filled to the brim with strawberries; each with an American flag, as I turned into the farmer’s driveway. There was a truck full of more strawberries under a shelter.
“Hello,” the farmer greeted me. He glanced at my license plate, “Are you really from Minnesota?” I assured him we were. “What brings you all the way down to South Carolina,” he asked.
I smiled, “Strawberries. Oh, and to visit my in-laws, too.” We shared a good laugh about that as I selected a quart container. It wasn’t an easy choice. The tables were full of square green quart containers, and white gallon pails of perfectly bright red berries.
“These are special strawberries,” he told me. “Most farmers don’t want to mess with them because they’re harder to grow; they more finicky. I have to charge a little more for them, but I think it’s worth it because they have about twenty-percent more natural sugars than other varieties. Go ahead and try one.”
“Try one,” I questioned? “Is that a sales pitch?”
“No sir, not at all,” replied the farmer as I bit into a big, juicy strawberry. “It’s a sale closer.” As I ate the fruit, I must have been smiling from ear to ear. It was as close to heaven as I’ve ever been in South Carolina. “You can have another if you’d like,” he offered, “but if you’re going to eat a third, I’ll have to charge you for the quart.” We shared a good laugh about that.
I questioned the farmer, “How long will these keep in a cooler on ice?”
“Well, I spect a couple of days at least. But don’t let them sit directly in water,” he warned. Then told me, “Ripe strawberries are like you and me – they like to drink water. But once they’re picked, the water will draw the natural sugars from the berry.”
I set my quart of strawberries back on the counter and picked up a gallon. The farmer smiled, “It was the taste test, wasn’t it?” We shared another good laugh about that. I paid him twenty-dollars for the gallon of berries, and he gave me a plastic bag to put the bucket in. “This will keep them out of the water,” he said.
I lifted the end gate to put the berries in the cooler I had intended to use for fresh shrimp. “Why don’t you just bring those up here for now,” Melissa said.
I chuckled thinking, “I’ll bet she wouldn’t have said that if this was raw shrimp.”
I set the bag on the front seat floor. Melissa opened the bag. “You bought a gallon? What are we going to do with all these?” I had an idea.
Our neighbors up the hill, produce a bumper crop of rhubarb each summer, and gracefully share their bounty with us. I still had some of their rhubarb in the freezer. Our other neighbors gave us several quarts of wild raspberries, and we still had some wild blueberries in the freezer. My mouth was watering over the thought of a strawberry-rhubarb pie, and a mixed berry pie. Yum.
On the trip home we each ate several strawberries, and I assure you, they tasted much better than raw shrimp would have. I put the pail of strawberries in the back of the car, on ice, so that we wouldn’t eat them all. Each time we stopped, the end gate was opened to grab a few more strawberries.
The next day we stopped at a rest area just outside of Indianapolis. I put Nova Mae on her leash and took her out of the kennel. Just as I set her down on the ground, the man parked next to us opened his back door to let out his large black dog. Yikes! I had no idea how the two dogs would react. They sniffed noses, and that was that.
The man’s wife came around the car, “Well that’s a real cute puppy you have. He looks pretty young.”
I thanked her, then said, “This is Nova Mae. We just got her in Mississippi. She’s about ten weeks old.”
“And she likes to travel already,” the lady asked? I told her Nova would be a traveling dog, and so far, everything was going great. “Our dog is getting pretty old, but she still likes to travel,” she said. “She’s made this round trip from Alaska to Indiana with us over twenty times.”
We enjoyed some small talk. The man told me they come down in the very early spring, or late fall, “The summers here are just too warm for us.”
I went to the back of my car and grabbed a handful of strawberries. “Here, I have a little gift for you. Naturally ripened, fresh strawberries we bought them yesterday from a farmer in South Carolina.”
His eyes really lit up, “Wow, this is a real treat. We don’t get fresh strawberries like these in Alaska.” The man gladly accepted my offer and thanked me. When his wife returned, he shared the berries with her. They seemed to enjoy them so much, I went to the back of our car and grabbed another handful.
“Would you like some more for the road,” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said, putting his hands out to accept them. He thanked me again, then the man got in the passenger side of the car. His big black dog was in the back seat. He and his wife drove away smiling – eating strawberries. I could only imagine, if these South Carolina berries were such a treat for a couple of Minnesotans, just how good they must taste to a couple of Alaskans? A real northerner’s delight, and I was pleased to share them.
When we got home, I cleared the snow from the driveway. A day or two later, after we were settled in, I pulled the rhubarb from the freezer cutting up just a little over two cups to thaw and mix with the strawberries. This pie was going to be awesome! I went to grab the pail of strawberries from the fridge. On the floor of the pail were five bright red strawberries. They looked so lonely after seeing the bucket so full.
“Honey,” I called out, “where are the rest of the strawberries? I’m going to make a pie.”
“We ate them,” she replied.
In disbelief I questioned, “You went through a gallon of strawberries?”
“We,” she replied adamantly. “We went through a gallon of strawberries. I saved the last few for you.”
Hmm. I drove into Zup’s grocery store to buy a quart of strawberries for my pie. When I got home, I cut them up, mixed in the rhubarb, then put my pie in the oven. I went to the fridge to grab the rest of the South Carolina berries to eat while the pie baked – but the bucket was empty. “Where’d the rest of the strawberries go,” I called out, but got no answer.
When the pie had cooled, I cut it up and shared it with two of our neighbors. A strawberry-rhubarb pie made with rhubarb from the neighbor’s patch – a real northerner’s delight.
The next time we go south, we’ll do our visiting first. I’ll take two coolers: one for fresh gulf shrimp and another for fresh strawberries. Maybe I’d better take three – the Georgia peaches should be ready by then.