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May 16, 2006

Fresas de la Bodega

(OK, I made it about 24 hours before I wanted to bail out on the whole “strawberry theme” idea for the week. There’s a post about Rhianna and Jewel just jumping out of my head right now. But I think I can hold out until tomorrow. So here’s Part II of the strawberry mini-series, with a probable break for shameless pandering tomorrow… )

On the outskirts of Salinas sits a tiny gas station. It occupies an intersection of Highway 68 and one of the main paved roads through the strawberry fields on either side of the highway.

The building is so small that many drivers pass by without even noticing it. But the business isn’t just a gas station: on the inside it’s a mini-bodega and taqueria, a place where workers from the fields can come in for a soda and a bite to eat on their lunch break or before returning home.

The station is owned by two Mexican brothers who always work behind the counter, assisted by various sisters and cousins as needed. There is a small TV beside the counter that is always tuned into a game of Mexican league futbol. All of the signs are written in Spanish, and almost none of the customers speak English. At the end of the day it becomes a gathering spot for a lot of the laborers.

Since their operation is so small, they can afford to charge a few cents per gallon less for gasoline. When gas prices spike, the bodega/gasoline station is home to a curious mix of Mexican immigrants and frugal white folks trying to save a few bucks. Some people like me come in just to enjoy the atmosphere.

You won’t see a lot of luxury cars or guys in suits entering the store. The overwhelmingly Mexican nature of the store tends to keep the overly pretentious or self-important white people away.

On the other hand, I’ve been buying gas there for years.

The brothers are two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. They always address me first in English, and when I answer in Spanish, we’ll converse a bit before they give me some small tip to improve my second language. They even hand out small packs of chicle (gum) whenever the notion strikes them.

Everyone that comes into the store is greeted as “amigo”. We all say “amigo” so much that we’ve never bothered to learn each other’s names. In fact, I’ve come to use that word as the name of the business, as in, “I bought gas from the amigos today.”

(OK, I’m finally getting to the strawberry part now…)

One evening after work about four weeks ago, I walked into the store to see a huge stack of strawberries beside the counter, with a piece of paper taped to the top basket saying “Fresas $1.00”. One amigo explained, “They’re from my amigo who is in charge of this field (pointing over his shoulder). They’re the first berries of the season – they usually have an extra sweet flavor. Son muy buenas.”

So I bought a box of fresas to take home. Which led to the following exchange with my wife when I got home:

Me: I bought some strawberries.

Her: But I just went shopping today – there are two big baskets of strawberries in the fridge already.

Me: Yeah, but these are from the amigos – they said they’re extra sweet. Try one.

Her (trying one): Wow.

The strawberries were amazing. We didn’t have to worry about clearing space in the fridge, because they never made it there. The box was empty before dinnertime.

The next morning, after a hard training run, I stopped at the bodega again on my way to work, and bought another basket of strawberries. My amigo said, “Son buenas, si? Por desayuno, tambien (good for breakfast, too).”

That box didn’t make it through the work day. I don’t think it even made it to lunchtime. On my way home, I stopped at the bodega again.

My amigo said, “Sorry amigo - no mas”. And less than 24 hours after I discovered them, the sweetest strawberries of the season became a mere memory. It was the gustatory equivalent of seeing a shooting star.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had plenty of good strawberries since then. But there was something distinctive about the first fruits of the season from the local fields, gathered by workers who I had probably passed by countless times without saying a word.

They gave me a moment’s appreciation for the pleasures this land has to offer, and made me grateful for the bodega that serves as a convergence point of two disparate worlds. I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the hands that brought the berries to the store in the first place – which I’ll explore further in another post.

(You know,….after I get the pandering out of the way first.)


backofpack 5/16/06, 10:11 AM  

Donald, that's how it goes with berries at our house. I'll buy half a flat, leave it on the counter and they are gone by bedtime. I always think strawberry shortcake, strawberries and vanilla ice cream, strawberry pie and I always get...plain strawberries. Once in a while I'll cheat big time and make the strawberry shortcake for dinner (as in: that's the meal) just so we'll get it in!

PS. I've heard of and heard Jewel!

matt 5/16/06, 11:08 AM  

i cannot get work done after reading these strawberry posts. i remember the fragrance of those early berries (sitting in a semi-catatonic state at my desk)...arrrggghhh, that's it! no more reading your blog during work :)

jeff 5/16/06, 1:23 PM  

i'm with matt, i can't read your blog at work anymore.

we've got berry fields right near our place...i'm going to hit the little stand on the way home.

you suck, donald.

Downhillnut 5/16/06, 3:24 PM  

One of my most vibrant memories ever is eating a kilo of strawberries from a fruit stand in the clock tower square in Munich shortly after Easter in 1983. I don't remember anything else about the city, just the sheer enjoyment of spring strawberries, with a vague background of chiming bells.

Very cool story about your amigos and the berries, and how in combination they made you happy and thankful.

stronger 5/16/06, 3:43 PM  

My favorite food. The east bay amigos knew they could always sell me a flat on friday afternoons.

Anne 5/16/06, 8:01 PM  

What a wonderfully written tribute to the bodega 'brothers' and the season's bounty. Now, find a way to work the Johnson Brothers' 1970s classic "Strawberry Letter 23" into a future fruit post and I'll be really impressed....

Deene 5/18/06, 9:47 AM  

yummy, fresh strawberries. out here we have to wait for a week to get them "fresh" from Calif. we had to stop all every stand the last time we went on a road trip out there.

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