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June 18, 2022

I still don’t understand how the women in my life were able to prepare breakfast on Sunday morning, have their children ready for Sunday school and worship, get everyone to church, come back home, and serve a big dinner prepared for the family to enjoy. Father’s Day was always a feast day.

My grandmother, Mammy, fed eleven or more people at her table every Sunday. The fare was often baked ham with pineapple slices, turnip greens with rendering, candied sweet potatoes, rice and gravy, cole slaw, and apple pie with ice cream.  

My mother-in-law, Miz Lib, specialized in snowflake fried chicken, home-style mashed potatoes, creamed sweet corn, fresh green beans with slivered almonds, sliced tomatoes, homemade biscuits with peach jam, and double fudge chocolate brownies.

My mother fed ten or more at her Sunday table. Mama’s usual spread was tender pot roast with boiled red potatoes and carrots, green peas with pearl onions, fried okra, summer squash, yeast rolls, and strawberry shortcake. Dad usually made the shortcake from strawberries he had grown.

My wife, Clare, has inherited recipes from these women who have preceded her. She has enhanced the culinary traditions passed down from both sides of our family.  

Last week I visited one of our favorite South Carolina Certified Roadside Markets. Most tables and bins were loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables from Upstate farms. I purchased tomatoes, squash, and a few of the first peaches of the year. The main attraction was fresh strawberries. I bought a gallon bucket of the delicious red fruit.

We are near the end of strawberry season in the Upstate. According to the good folks at Cooley Springs, we have about two more weeks left in this growing season. The heat wave of recent days has signaled the close of a productive year. Now, it is time for peaches!

The Beatles’ song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was released on a 45 rpm vinyl record back in the olden days. It was on the flip side of “Penny Lane.” What is the meaning of the seemingly senseless lyrics? An answer can be found at 

Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army orphanage in Liverpool, England. Having lost his father and mother, John Lennon felt a kinship with the homeless boys. He had fond memories of the place, especially the garden that inspired this song.

“Paul, George, and Ringo lived in government-subsidized housing. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie into a nice place with a small garden.”

In an interview, Lennon explained, “Strawberry Fields is a real place. Near our home was Strawberry Fields, a boys’ reformatory where I used to go to garden parties with my friends. I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields forever.”

John donated money to the orphanage before his death. One of its buildings is named Lennon Hall.

The title of the Beatles’ song reminds me of Strawberry Hill on Highway 11 in northern Spartanburg County. The strawberry fields near Cooley Springs are abuzz with activity this time of year.

I made a telephone call to the folks at Strawberry Hill up on Highway 11 last week. James Cooley reports that favorable temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine earlier this year give promise for a plentiful crop of delicious berries. The delightful red berries should be available through most of June. 

 For an all too brief time every year, locally grown strawberries take the produce spotlight. From Cross Anchor to Landrum, from Cowpens to Lyman, the succulent red strawberries grown on the rolling hills of our county are the fruit of choice from mid-April through late June. Imported berries from California or Florida get us through the colder months, but we look forward to the unsurpassed flavor of the Spartanburg County beauties.

Several years ago, I brought home a gallon bucket of Spartanburg County’s finest on an early Saturday morning in April. When I walked in the front door of our home, Clare exclaimed, “Oh boy! Strawberries!” Three of our adult children and their families had come for Saturday morning brunch. Those strawberries never made it past the kitchen sink. Clare rinsed them, and the family clustered around to eat their fill. The berries evaporated. Later that day, Clare sent me out to fetch another bucket of the tasty treat.

My mother was a master chef. Strawberry shortcake was among the many rich dessert offerings at Mama’s table. She constructed her masterpiece with either angel food cake or old-fashioned homemade pound cake. The cake was sliced into layers. Each layer was saturated in turn with sweetened puréed strawberries and topped with a thick coating of real whipped cream.

There was nothing short about Mama’s reassembled cake! The towering structure was crowned with more whipped cream and decorated with fresh sliced strawberries. Just writing about Mama’s strawberry shortcake makes my mouth water and raises my cholesterol. 

I preached a series of sermons at a revival at a country church in the Lowcountry several years ago. On the final night, we enjoyed a church picnic. At the outdoor supper, an alarmingly large man sat beside me. His dinner-sized paper plate sagged under a heaping portion of strawberry shortcake. I thought for a moment that the folding chair beneath him would buckle under his weight. The plate of shortcake might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The chair held securely. When the last morsel of the dessert was consumed and the platter was licked clean, the man turned to me and said, “Now, preacher, that’s the way we’re gonna’ eat in heaven.”  

I thought to myself, “Probably sooner than later.”

In my childhood, my dad was, to me, the master strawberry grower. Dad planted his own strawberry field, a long narrow bed of Ozark Beauties next to a stand of tall yellow pine trees. The pine needles provided the mulch to protect the plants in the winter. In the early spring, the pine needles were removed to allow the plant crowns to bud. Delicate white blossoms gave a pleasing portent of the harvest to come. When the strawberries were ripe, we took turns picking. The family rule was, “Put ten in the bucket for every berry you eat.” 

Thank goodness! Otherwise, the bucket would never have been filled. 

When I was a boy, fresh berries were on our table three times a day throughout the season. Now, as then, strawberries are a daily treat in our home for a few weeks each spring. 

Strawberries over vanilla ice cream are an outstanding finale to a summer supper. The red berries sparkle in a salad of fresh fruit. Strawberries brighten the flavor and the appearance of a bowl of cold cereal. 

By the way, did I mention Mama’s strawberry shortcake? That has to be the all-time favorite for our family and for many other folks as well. Come to think of it, strawberry shortcake really might be served in heaven!

When Clare and I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, I wanted to plant my own strawberry field, a small patch in our backyard. In the fall, I tilled several bags of composted cow manure into the garden plot to enrich the clay soil. In the early spring, I set out twenty-five strawberry plants and side-dressed them with more composted cow manure. My mom and dad came for a visit precisely when the strawberries were ripe. Though few in number, the berries were plump and delicious. I proudly put a bowl of strawberries in front of my dad, the master at growing strawberries. 

He admired the bowl of fresh, red berries, “Tell me what you put on your strawberries.” 

“Plenty of cow manure,” I said. 

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and a playful smile on his face.

Then, he quipped, “Have you tried cream and sugar?”

Dad always did know the secret to good strawberries.


Some of the stories in this column will be in the forthcoming book

Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard

By kirk H. Neely

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, 136 Forest Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585-0022.

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