BRENTWOOD – Dogged by self- consciousness and suburban angst, I've always shied away from partaking in the whole U-pick produce craze that took hold a couple decades ago.
At least, that's when I first heard of the curious pastime. And that's the thing that always bothered me: What may be a pastime to you, the coddled city dweller boldly venturing beyond the Safeway aisles out into the ag fields, is a real job to many low-income and migrant workers.
What must they think when they look up briefly – stretching their stressed spines, perhaps – and see Mom, Dad, Chip and Sissy giggling as they hunt for just the right shapely strawberry with just the right daubing of red?
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Still, each spring in this rural part of Contra Costa County, the folks in minivans and SUVs traverse Highway 4, bent on becoming farmers-for-a-day. Not so much farmers as day pickers, doing the grunt work willingly. In fact, paying for the pleasure.
As Nobel laureate I.B. Singer once observed, "I have told myself a thousand times not to be shocked, but every time I am shocked again by what people will do to have fun, for reasons they cannot explain."
But, if I've learned anything in this job, it's the need to leave my comfort zone, expand my horizons, test boundaries, stockpile clichés. So that's how I found myself on one recent hot Saturday afternoon, hunched over tilled rows like the worker in that famous Diego Rivera painting, minus the floppy hat.
I realize U-pick patches abound all over Northern California, but the family and I burned considerable fossil fuels to travel to far-eastern Contra Costa because the farms there have sort of made U-picking a tourist attraction from late spring through fall.
Perhaps the most popular and diverse in terms of produce for the pickin' in these parts is Enos Family Farms on Marsh Creek Road, not far from Brentwood's dollops of housing tracts.
When we pulled up, the dirt parking lot was packed and you could see scores of backs hunched over the football-field-sized patch of strawberries.
Children – and there were many – had the advantage here, already being close to the earth. Still, I had to stanch a deep parental need to contact child-labor officials.
Here's how it works: Go to the farm stand, ask for a bucket, which the worker lines with a plastic grocery bag before handing it to you, and then get to work. It's $3 per pound – a crime, maybe, if that's what Enos was to pay workers, but a pretty good deal considering a 16-ounce basket of plump, hydroponically grown strawberries costs maybe $4 to $5 at most grocery stores.
But it's not about saving a few bucks to most pickers I chatted up in the fields.
It's a bonding thing.
"We wanted a family event, and we like strawberries, and somebody told us we had to go to Brentwood," said Kei Nakamura, who had camera duty while wife He Zhao and their two toddlers plucked strawberries. "We're from Berkeley and had no idea where in Brentwood to go. We just pointed the car this way. It was easy to find."
Others, however, make this a seasonal ritual. Charles and Adela Boyle drive from Fremont, an hour southwest, a few times a month. They mostly crave cherries – which won't be ripe for picking until late May, according to Enos workers – but the Boyles had their strawberry basket brimming.
"You should see us during cherry season; we fill two big buckets, like, 4 pounds of them. So sweet," Charles Boyle said. "And it's fun to pick."
Really? I asked.
Charles' brow was beaded with sweat, his face flushed.
"Yeah, it's all good," he said.
So will he try for a United Farm Workers union card?
"I don't think that's in the cards," he said, laughing.
"It's funny," Adela said. "We aren't even garden people. All we have at home is a persimmon and an apple tree."
"And the apples are too tart," Charles added.
Ron Enos, whose farm gained "certified organic" designation in 2012, has operated U-pick patches for several decades and also sells at a farm stand and at farmers markets in Brentwood and San Francisco.
He came out on that Saturday afternoon, the first U-pick day of the season, to bask in the sight of people having fun unearthing strawberry gems. When I asked him why people find U-pick so entertaining, he paused.
"I wish I could tell you," he said. "It's really an experience. The best thing is, kids learn about strawberries, that they grow low, close to the ground. We've added other things, like cucumbers and tomatoes and apricots, that people can pick. I think (customers) like the idea that these are the freshest you can get."
Can you get any fresher than stem-to-mouth? Maybe if you ate it directly off the stem. But the field etiquette is no grazing.
U-pick. U-pay. Then U-gorge.
My foray into the fields went surprisingly well. Stand worker Teresa Fruciano gave me a tip before I ventured out – "pick toward the back; most people don't go out that far."
Picking strawberries, I soon found, was akin to childhood Easter egg hunts. You lift up the leaves, root around a bit, pluck a specimen that doesn't look too small, too withered or too smooshy.
Because we're red-blooded Americans, we're inculcated that size means quality. We want our fruit big and robust, something we can dig our incisors into.
You soon learn that the strawberries here are much smaller than those found glimmering under the fluorescent lights in the store produce section. The largest strawberry I picked was the size of my thumb, down only to the first joint.
"Yeah," Charles Boyle said, as we waited in line to get our bounty weighed, "but wait until you taste them. The smaller, the sweeter."
True enough. In fact, that's such a great inspiration slogan that I want to embroider it on a pillow.
My tally for toiling 15 minutes in the rich earth was slightly over 2 pounds. So, for about $7, I walked off with a heavy sack of strawberry goodness.
The best part, this being a late Saturday afternoon, was that no "real" pickers were out working. Awkwardness averted, my back-to-the-land fantasy could play out sans reality check.
ENOS FAMILY FARMS U-PICK
23275 Marsh Creek Road, Brentwood
U-pick days: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
For updates, check www.enosfamilyfarms.com/U-Pick.php
The Bee's Sam McManis takes "Discoveries" requests. Call (916) 321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis.