Eating and Drinking Poems: May Swenson’s “Strawberrying”

In these last days before fall sets in, Kathryn Neel’s latest Eating and Drinking Poems post invites us to recall lazy summer days of childhood by tempting us with cool, homemade strawberry ice cream.

Summer is coming to an end. Soon we will be trading in shorts for sweaters, beach towels for school books or briefcases, and sunny, hot days for more temperate weather. So, in honor of the last days of summer, I share with you an old family recipe for strawberry ice cream to go with May Swenson’s poem, “Strawberrying.”

Try remembering what it was like as a child to eat fresh, homemade ice cream and to lie in the grass staring at lightning bugs or the stars, feeling all was right with the world.


My hands are murder-red. Many a plump head
drops on the heap in the basket. Or, ripe
to bursting, they might be hearts, matching
the blackbirds’s wing-fleck. Gripped to a reed
he shrieks his ko-ka-ree in the next field.
He’s left his peck in some juicy cheeks, when
at first blush and mostly white, they showed
streaks of sweetness to the marauder.

We’re picking near the shore, the morning
sunny, a slight wind moving rough-veined leaves
our hands rumple among. Fingers find by feel
the ready fruit in clusters. Here and there,
their squishy wounds….Flesh was perfect
yesterday….June was for gorging….
sweet hearts young and firm before decay.

“Take only the biggest and not too ripe,”
a mother calls to her girl and boy, barefoot
in the furrows. “Don’t step on any. Don’t
change rows. Don’t eat too many.” Mesmerized
by the largesse, the children squat and pull
and pick handfuls of rich scarlets, half
for the baskets, half for avid mouths.
Soon, whole faces are stained.

A crop this big begs for plunder. Ripeness
wants to be ravished, as udders of cow when hard,
the blue-veined bags distended, ache to be stripped.
Hunkered in mud between the rows, sun burning
the backs of our necks, we grope for, and rip loose
soft nippled heads. If they bleed—too soft—
let them stay. Let them rot in the heat.

When, hidden away in a damp hollow under moldy
leaves, I come upon a clump of heart-shapes
once red, now spiderspit-gray, intact but empty,
still attached to their dead stems—
families smothered as at Pompeii—I rise
and stretch. I eat one more big ripe lopped
head. Red-handed, I leave the field.

Strawberry Ice Cream
Print Recipe
Strawberry Ice Cream
Print Recipe
  1. Heat the milk in a medium sized nonreactive sauce pan, to just below boiling. Put the egg yolks in a small mixing bowl and whisk in the ½ cup sugar to blend. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the egg and sugar mixture to temper the egg yolks. Pour the hot milk-and-egg mixture back into the sauce pan and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the air bubbles that cover the surface have dissipated and the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon thickly. Do not ever allow the custard to simmer or boil. Remove from heat, and stir in heavy cream. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, and allow to cool completely.
  2. Put the strawberries in a bowl, and sprinkle ¼ cup granulated sugar over them. Using two forks or a potato masher, crush the strawberries to a pulp. Taste the mixture and add more sugar if needed. The berries should be quite sweet but not cloying.
  3. Stir the sugared and mashed berries into the cooled custard. Add the vanilla and salt, and stir well to blend. Chill until very cold, preferably overnight. Freeze in an ice-cream freezer, following manufacturer’s instructions.
Recipe Notes

Note: If strawberries are in short supply where you live, try some other fruit (bananas, peaches, berries, etc.)

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Photo by Mr.TinDCCreative Commons via Flickr. Post by Kathryn Neel.

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  1. says

    Please do include Swenson’s poem or a link. I love the opening line “My hands are murder-red. Many a plump head /….”

    My parents used to have an old hand-crank ice cream making machine that was in use throughout the summer. It took a lot of labor and no time to reduce to nothing the marvelous results.

  2. says

    freeze summer
    of a time –

    loll summer
    your tongue –

    remember her
    it snows

  3. Marcy says

    Strawberry Summers

    The color of red,
    Sweet, pop in your mouth
    But turn your head.
    Little girl dressed,
    In a cotton gown.
    Her slippers forgotten,
    Her feet all brown.
    She smells of blueberry mornings,
    With a crown of morning glories
    In her soft pale hair.
    Takes up her tiny basket,
    Full of juicy red.
    Walks the trail of,
    Mashed down grass.
    To her home,
    Of the past.

    • Marcy says

      I would like to throw this one out also. August 8, 2014 I rewrote it also.

      Strawberry Summers

      The color of red,
      Little girl dressed in a cotton gown.
      Barefooted, her feet all brown.
      Takes her tiny basket,
      Full of juicy red.
      Follows mashed down green,
      To the back door screen.

  4. says

    Eating homemade ice cream is most definitely a fond and vivid summer memory.
    And this poem by May Swenson is simply luscious. That first line is arresting.
    I take my kids to pick berries every summer, and have actually said very similar words as the mom in the poem: “take only the biggest and not too ripe”. :)

  5. Marcy says

    Dew drops left,
    On strawberry red.
    Quiet is the field,
    Birds fly overhead.
    Large ones fall,
    Right into my hand.
    Firm, ripe, ready,
    To pick.
    Thoughts of chilled,
    Berries sugared and sweet.
    Take me home, they all say.
    So sweet.

  6. Kathryn Neel says

    Glad you all are enjoying the strawberry ice cream poem as well as the recipe. The recipe was my grandmother’s.

  7. Marcy says

    You can remove the poem I wrote on August 10th, 2014 at 11:54 p.m. I’ve rewrote it.

    “Strawberry Red”

    Dew drops left on strawberry red,
    Quiet is the field ahead
    Large ones fall, firm, ripe to pick.
    Thoughts of chilled berries,
    Sugared and sweet.


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