Strawberries are the harbinger of Spring in North Carolina. Sweet but tart, the crimson berries known to stain fingers and render sugar stomachaches upon over indulgence, arrive with the longer days and warmer temperatures so many of us long for.
As days grow longer and the air warmer, pick-your-own fields flourish and roadside stands hawking North Carolina produce sprinkle highways and backroads across the state. Coming in season around mid-April, strawberries precede our beloved blueberry and peach season and, according to the USDA, generate nearly $29.4 million in farm income.
James Kenan, President of the North Carolina Strawberry Association, told us, “Right now with this warm weather, strawberries are coming in all over North Carolina, from the coast all the way to the mountains. People are beginning to pick. They are gorgeous. They are beautiful. They are sweet. They don’t taste anything like the California berries or the Florida berries. These are North Carolina berries. They’re very delicious.”
Grown across the state, strawberries have been a part of our culture and economy for over a century.
Ethan Lineberger’s grandfather Harold Lineberger planted his first full acre of strawberries in 1955, and used the income from its harvest to buy an engagement ring for his wife Patsy Eaker. The family has since built a life around strawberries. This year Lineberger’s Maple Springs Farm, located in the southern piedmont town of Dallas, will produce around 35,000 gallons or 175,000 pounds of eleven varieties of strawberries. The farm opens in mid-April and sells its produce there and at local farmers markets through the end of May or until it gets too hot.
Ethan, who at 25 is gradually assuming the helm of the family business says, “North Carolina is kind of unique. We are one of the big states in strawberry production, but we don’t have many big growers. We have many small producers. Most farmers are growing and retailing their own strawberries. Living in North Carolina, you have a great opportunity to meet your local strawberry farmers and pick fresh strawberries off the vine.”
One hundred ninety-three miles east of Dallas, Brian Johnson of Angier, runs a smaller, newer strawberry operation at Johnson Farms. He currently farms two-and-a-half acres and two varieties of strawberries. He sells 90% of what they grow at their small roadside stand and, on the weekends, travels to two farmers’ markets in Cary.
Johnson, who was raised in an agrarian family, began growing and selling produce six years ago. He says, “The first two years we were open without berries, and people were asking for them.” People in the community wanted fresh strawberries. Johnson explains, “There are three strawberries farms within four miles at this location... they all seem to be doing well. I’m not sure...people just — they love the strawberries.”
Strawberries hold a special place in the culture and foodways of the state. The official North Carolina Strawberry Festival, hosted by Chadbourn, a small southeastern town near the South Carolina state line, dates back to 1926. It is one of the oldest produce festivals in North Carolina. Held annually over the first weekend of May, the festival includes a parade, food contests, pageants and a car show. The festival’s website boasts and lays claim to the largest one day shipment of strawberries, harvested by 15,000 workers and transported by 180 railroad box cars, from Chadbourn in 1907. The town’s strawberry growing heyday has long passed. Many store fronts are now vacant and, according to one local resident, many folks have moved out town for work. But, strawberries still remain a significant part of the town culture. Street signs, the town hall, homes and gardens are adorned with small decorative strawberries. The festival continues as a celebration of that time in history and a reminder of the role of strawberries in our state.
Across the state, strawberries are featured in preserves, jams, jellies, sonkers, pies, shortcakes and wines. They are frozen and stored for use throughout the year, and, of course, are always enjoyed fresh off the vine.
This weekend, celebrate our state’s official red berry: find a roadside stand, meet a local farmer, pick your own berries, and whip up this delicious old-school strawberry cake using traditional hot milk layers.
Hot Milk Cake is a Southern favorite. Made with simple ingredients and often served plain, Hot Milk Cake is rumored to have roots in the Great Depression. Variations of the recipe often span generations. For the Honeycutt family of Harnett County, from whom our own Ryan Stancil descends, hot milk layers are the secret to a knockout Strawberry Shortcake. This week’s recipe has been passed down three generations in the Honeycutt family and is served today at summer picnics, family reunions, church homecomings, and was served for decades in the family’s community restaurant.
Standing nearly 10” tall and covered in a fluffy white swath of fresh whipped cream, the cake is sure to impress and delight. It's best enjoyed from a front porch rocker with a big glass of ice cold milk.
1 stick butter
1 cup whole milk
2 cups sugar
2 -2/3 cups self-rising flour
1 tsp vanilla
Beat eggs and mix sugar together. Add well sifted flour and vanilla to mixture. In a separate pot bring butter and milk to a boil and remove from heat. Add hot milk mixture to flour, egg, sugar, vanilla mixture and beat well. Pour in 3 -8 inch (9 inch will also work), greased and floured cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove layers and cool on cooling rack.
Use 3 pints fresh strawberries. Wash, cap and slice the berries. Place in a bowl and stir in 1 ¼ cup sugar. If time permits, let the berries set overnight in refrigerator.
Two pints heavy whipping cream
Chill whipping cream, beaters and bowl in freezer. When thoroughly chilled pour cream in bowl, starting slowly, gradually increase the speed of the mixer and mix cream until thick, add sugar to taste (approximately 1 cup) slowly to the cream. Layer the cooled cake, strawberries and cream, repeat.