Josna Rege

111. Strawberry-Picking Camp

In 1940s, Britain, Food, Stories, Work on June 3, 2011 at 3:31 pm

My mother has always had a particular fondness for strawberries. She buys strawberries trustingly, undiscriminatingly, ever-hopeful despite the tastelessness of most store-bought approximations that desecrate the name. Perhaps, besides their uniquely delicious taste, there is something else associated with them that she holds especially dear. Perhaps the strawberry stands for something infinitely better, an ideal that can’t be spoiled by the inevitably less-than-perfect reality. I suspect that this ideal has something to do with her experiences in the 1940’s at strawberry-picking camp.

As a young woman after the War, out of school, living at home in grey, bombed-out London, with food rationing still in effect, Mum worked hard at office jobs by day and, in the evenings, when she wasn’t going out dancing or to the movies with her best friend Lily, broadened her cultural horizons by taking night classes in German and ballet. She also did supply teaching in the East End of London in conditions much like those depicted in To Sir, with Love. Times were hard and, after she had given her mother a chunk of her weekly pay for her keep, there wasn’t much left over; certainly not for a vacation.

Her opportunity came when her elder brother Ted found out about a strawberry-picking camp in Norfolk,  between Kings Lynn and Wisbech, set up by special arrangement between the farmer and the National Union of Students. Strawberry-picking offered the cheapest possible summer vacation. I don’t think that the pickers were paid, or if they were, it was a pittance: essentially, they picked all day in exchange for room and board. But what they got in return for their hard work couldn’t be measured in money: the pleasure of each other’s company.

Every morning, Mum said, when she told us stories about her childhood and youth, they went out into the strawberry fields, baskets in hand, and picked all day in the hot sun—eating strawberries as they picked, of course—with only a short break for lunch. But at the end of the day, their time was their own until the next morning, and the evenings with her fellow-campers for that one short week were experiences that would last a lifetime.

Back in the 1940’s, London wasn’t as international as it has become since, and travel to the rest of Europe wasn’t as easy. If one didn’t have the means to travel and didn’t attend university, one was unlikely to meet many foreigners. But the strawberry-picking camp drew university students from all over Europe, and in the evenings they built campfires and sat round them singing, teaching songs to each other, sharing food, friendship, and youthful energy. Mum hadn’t had the opportunity to go to university (although, years later in the States she would earn a BA by attending Harvard University Extension School in the evenings after work) and these evenings round the campfire gave Mum her only taste of the college experience. She was exposed to other cultures and languages, met intellectuals fired with social consciousness, and—I’m only guessing—had a little summer romance. In such a setting, how could one not?

When my sister and I were children, Mum would sing all the songs she knew, talking about where she had first learned them, and every so often she would sing a song from strawberry-picking camp. I particularly remember the French drinking song, Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. There were others as well, like another French folk song, Sur le Pont D’Avignon, that I think she must have sung round the campfire and Avanti Popolo, an Italian workers’ song that she suddenly remembered only recently.

The following year, Mum’s brother Ted decided to return to the camp, but this time he wanted to make some real money. When he proposed to Mum that he take the position of cook and she, assistant cook, she readily agreed, signing on without realizing it would involve untold hours of potato-peeling. But that second year wasn’t nearly as much fun as the first. Pay or no pay, the responsibility for feeding and washing up after the hungry masses robbed the experience of its original carefree quality; and besides, the masses disapproved of the food. Ted (so Mum told it; no doubt he has his own story!) didn’t have any problem serving up strawberries for dessert, a move that was not well-received, but he didn’t care. He had no intention of taking more time than necessary laboring over a hot stove during his summer vacation. But Mum was thin-skinned, and the boos of the crowd hurt her, and made her feel a little less one with them. Then one day, Uncle Ted decided he’d had enough and simply took off with no warning, leaving the cooking entirely to her for the rest of the week. She had never cooked for such a large group before, and the prospect was terrifying, especially since she was suddenly left in the lurch with dinnertime looming, hordes of hungry campers threatening to turn into hordes of angry campers, and no supplies in the kitchen.

For several years, as shareholders in a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farm, we had the pleasure and the luxury of picking our own strawberries. I took Mum with me a couple of times, thinking that she might enjoy the experience, but she soon tired of it. I guess she had quite enough of strawberry-picking in her youth.  At this age, she’d much rather eat strawberries than pick them.

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  1. Jo — I loved this one — shame on Uncle Ted, the ditcher! We should definitely plan to sing some rounds of “Chevaliers de la Table Ronde” and “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” on Sunday. My bilingual mom taught us these and more — there’s one that starts: “Il etait un petit navire…” about a sailor who can’t swim, as I recall. (I think it’s called “Matelot” — not to be confused with “matelas” 😉 I love your posts! xxoo, –N

    • Nancy–we learned “Il etait un petit navire” in Greece! (And its Greek version: Eitan ena mikro karavi.) I love it. We also learned “Avec Mes Sabots (en passant par la Lorraine). I didn’t know that your mother was bi-lingual. So much about your childhood and youth that I don’t know. Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday. And I didn’t mean to cast dear Uncle Ted as the villain. It was thanks to him that Mum went to the camp in the first place and got introduced to all sorts of people, including the person who was to become her husband! x J

  2. I’ll think of this story the next time I eat local strawberries, which should be pretty soon. And since you left the tantalizing cliff-hanger, I hope that your next post (or one very soon) tells how your parents met!

  3. I ate my first local strawbs this morning for breakfast. What a joy! And yes, I thought of your mother at her first year of strawberry picking. It makes me wish we had something similar now. I’d love a working vacation — better than none!

    • Fresh, local strawberries: bliss. I had a long email this morning from my uncle Ted, who remembers all sorts of details about the camp, which apparently was a collaboration between a local farmer and the National Union of Students. Funnily enough, he doesn’t remember his kid sister or the cooking, just what fun it was camping with his best buddy, and how difficult it was in those days for a working-class kid to join the NUS. Ah, the meeting of my parents! Of course, I wasn’t there. . .

  4. I learned Chevaliers de la Table Ronde sometime during my French studies. I checked out your link and a few other renditions of the song on You Tube. My question is why are half the posts by Germans? Do they have a special fascination for drinking songs? Just asking.

    • I thought that was curious, too. Not to engage in national typecasting, but yes, good question! (The British are fond of drinking songs, too, but perhaps aren’t so cross-culturally adventurous as the Germans are?)

  5. We grew our own strawberries until we left Idlewild, MI for Atlanta. Those were the best. One year my husband, who worked for the Michigan highway dept. took us to pick cherries during the whole cherry season. The state had taken some cherry trees and was going to cut them all down to build a highway. That 1 year we had so many free cherries – yellow, red, black. All delicious.

    • Heaven—unlimited free cherries! My mouth is watering. Did you preserve them or just eat them all up?

    • P.S. Homegrown strawberries are the best. Once you’ve tasted them, the massive commercial ones are tasteless. Your children must have learned to appreciate good food. J

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