Oregon berry icon reminisces on a delicious history

While most merely revel in the splendor of fresh Oregon strawberries, food preservers and commercial packers always are casting an eye ahead to less-bountiful times.

Times when homemade strawberry preserves would be the perfect topping for your morning toast. Times in the deep of winter when you can haul out your precious cache of ruby-fruited jam and bring a smile back into the kitchen.

Oregon berry icon Bob Conroy, who owned and operated Conroy Packing Company in Woodburn from 1955 to 1990, once reminisced with me about commercial freezing practices of more than 50 years ago. Conroy's whole professional life revolved around Oregon berries. In the early 1970s, he was one of the innovators in the processing of IQF (individually quick frozen) berries. In the late '80s, he was instrumental in the processing and sale of strawberries to Japan, and in the early '90s, his participation was pivotal in getting berries into the U.S. Department of Agriculture School Lunch Program.

But way back in the earlier part of the 20th century, things were much more primitive, said Conroy. Born in 1922, he would have been a youngster at the time but remembers working with fresh Oregon strawberries as though it were yesterday.

"We used to pack them in 50-gallon wooden barrels. Then we'd stack them in cold-storage areas where those old compressors could actually get the temperature down to about 5 degrees below zero and keep it there."

Conroy said that the hefty barrels containing about 375 pounds of fruit and sugar had to be rolled every two days until the contents were completely frozen. "And oh boy, was that a lot of work. They didn't have lift trucks, so it had to be done by hand."

Packing also was done by hand. The ratio was about 90 pounds of sugar to 285 pounds of fruit, he said. Give or take a few pounds. "They just sort of layer-packed them. They'd run in about 3 inches of fruit, then about half an inch of sugar. And then they'd put about 6 inches of fruit and 3 inches of sugar, and so on until the barrel was filled. It wasn't perfectly accurate, but it was close enough."

Then, in 1938, Birdseye introduced the first retail pack of frozen strawberries. "It was a daring thing to do," he recalled. But the public took to the little packages of fruit that had been packed right there in Hillsboro. "Can you imagine," exclaimed Conroy, "strawberries at Christmastime!"

For Conroy, the memory of working with the berries from Forest Grove that came into the plant is still vivid. "I'd take a berry off the line as they were running by and hold it between my forefinger and thumb. Then I would sliiiide it through the sugar to build up a real, good coating. Ooooh, that was good."

TO FREEZE OREGON STRAWBERRIES: It's simple! Just wash and dry the berries thoroughly, then layer them on a shallow baking sheet and freeze until the berries are very firm. Tumble them into freezer-grade plastic bags and freeze.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com

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