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Food, Lifestyle

Safeguards in the garden and risky food business


Why was my mother so excited picking strawberries? My impression was that she was more pleased about harvesting strawberries than doing anything else Florida had to offer.

When she first started to spend her winters in the Sunshine State, she would send crates of oranges and grapefruits home to us. In time though, the packages she would send, and the fruit they contained, became smaller and redder. She loved the farms that offered a basket that you could fill yourself, the “pick your own” fields. But this activity was not without its hazards.

Eventually, I would have the chance to go picking with her, and I got a laugh out of the huge quantity of strawberries she would consume as she worked — something that she either didn’t realize or just wouldn’t admit to. I warned her that there was some risk to this, as pickers did not have the most sanitary of working conditions. She would dismiss the notion that unwashed berries could cause you harm, though, until one day she became very ill and was diagnosed with a bacterial infection that lasted the better part of a year. Even so, that setback never prevented her from eating the beautiful berry. But it did deter her from further picking, thankfully.

My mother needed a lot of convincing when it came to safeguards in the garden. I cannot tell you how many times I pointed out to her what a poison ivy plant looked like. It seemed that every year she would weed them out of her garden without realizing what they were, resulting in a terrible rash. The worst one was when she burned the plants along with some other brush, inhaling the poison and developing a terrible lung infection. Another such incident was when she went clamming with a friend in an area that needed permits. That ended badly, too, with a case of neurotoxic shellfish poisoning.  I think of these encounters as representative of my mother’s love for food.  She just couldn’t help herself!

We all have our family food stories. You need only to mention yours and you will hear many from others, one about the poison mushrooms, or one about the poison berries, or the time someone feasted at a formal dinner in Japan and ate a deadly fish. So many stories are told about the risky business of food.

Before I started my restaurant I did some catering.  A table never looked prettier to me than when I covered it with banana leaves and topped them with various salads like fruit, vegetables, sliced chicken, meat and fish.  The tablescape was so pretty and I loved that the food could be viewed without having to compete with ceramic platters.  This made the display more organic, with the food as star and the natural banana leaves as a backdrop.  

One particular day as I prepared to top the leaves with the various salads and food, I couldn’t find the banana leaves. It dawned on me, eventually, that the banana leaves did not make it into the car.  As I looked around the garden of my client’s grounds, I noticed that there was a patch of rhubarb.  Their beautiful leaves called out to me as a perfect replacement for my banana leaves.  As I started to put together my display, using a giant leaf of rhubarb, a woman dashed over to me.  “Those leaves are poisonous,” she warned, which as a city kid, I knew nothing about. I immediately stopped what I was doing and asked for a few of my hosts platters. To this day I recall the potentially deadly incident whenever I pick rhubarb.  

When my daughter Kathy was 2, she was playing near the swing set in the yard one day when she was distracted by some berries growing on a bush nearby.  Suddenly, she started to pick and eat them. Not knowing if they were harmful, I rushed her to the local hospital where her stomach was pumped.  

A similar incident happened in Sicily years ago. As I walked along the shore near my cousin’s cottage, I was bitten by a jellyfish.  Immediately, a red line appeared all the way up my leg. The pain was excruciating and as I sat on a rock trying to massage and comfort myself, two little girls, around 5 years old, came by. Each held a hand and quickly led me to a doctor on top of a hill nearby. Sicilian is very different than Tuscano, which I am more familiar with, but I quickly understood that this was a serious bite. After a few hours and some tenderness by the girls and soothing natural medicine from the doctor, I was treated and on my way to being OK.

There are so many beautiful varieties of fruits and vegetables and foods now that summer is upon us.  The years of eating well and enjoying delicious foods are memorable, however the very few food experiences that turned out negatively are also unforgettable.        

Last Sunday, when my daughter-in-law called to invite me to brunch, she reported that my granddaughters wanted me to make strawberry soup, which they love. The ritual of enjoying the first delicious local strawberries, finding the best of them, always reminds me of my mother and our days together in Florida.  

“This is the most delicious food you will ever taste,” said granddaughter Emma as she tried to coax her boyfriend to taste the chilled strawberry soup.  He declined, to which she responded “Good, more for me.”  That’s how I feel about it too.

Chilled Strawberry Soup

Cover 1 quart of cleaned strawberries with 2 or 3 cups of red wine, 1 cup of sugar and a dash of cinnamon, if you like, add the zest of a lemon.


Allow to come to a boil, quickly lower heat and simmer until strawberries are soft. Keep an eye on the pot, as the mixture has a tendency to boil over quickly. Depending on how ripe the berries are,  timing will vary.


Set aside to cool. Using a food processor or a bermixer, puree the berries and liquid. A blender will do as well.


When berries are cold, add heavy cream, light cream or yogurt or a combination of sour cream and whole milk to lighten up soup. The amount you use will depend on how thick you would like the soup.


Serve chilled with fresh mint as a garnish. This is great with a cookie as an afternoon snack or dessert.

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