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Phyllis Ann Bailey's Strawberry Preserves

Phyllis Ann Bailey's Strawberry Preserves

by Ron Williams
Spring City, Tenn., May 16, 2004

The Mexican migrant workers were picking strawberries and loading them onto a Chevy flatbed across Highway 27 outside of Dayton, TN. The other flatbed was at the sales stand directly across from the fields where Sandra and I watched the workers while we were paying for a flat of 8 quarts of strawberries picked a few minutes ago.

Tidwell‚s open air sales stand looked to contain around 500 eight quart flats of berries picked within the last several hours. All would be sold well before closing fours hours later, even with more truckloads to be delivered.

It‚s the height of strawberry season in Southeast Tennessee. This is the weekend when Dayton, TN gives up their fame as the site of the Scopes Trial, where evolution was declared illegal in 1925, to host the Tennessee State Strawberry Festival. Back in March of this year, the commissioners of Rhea County (Dayton is the county seat) declared homosexuality was illegal in their fair city and the resulting political backpedaling to undo the national public media ridicule was nearly as embarrassing as the initial resolution.

For the Festival, Rhea County jail had let their inmates walk about the courtyard in their hunter orange jumpsuits eating Lo Mien and Char Sui ribs provided by one of the festival vendors; and even a Gay Darwinist would have been extended the friendly hospitality that seemed to go with sweetness of a new crop of strawberries. It is hard to be mean with sticky hands and sugared strawberry juice trickling from your mouth.

About seven miles north of Dayton on Highway 27, right before Spring City and the Hwy 68 turn-off to Sweetwater, is Tidwell‚s Berry Farms. Tidwell is the primary strawberry grower in Southeast Tennessee other than some small family farms upon Walden‚s Ridge. They grow the Chandler variety of berry which changes size and shape during the growing season.

Sandra and I turned right at the junction of Hwy 27 and Hwy 68 and drove east to Sweetwater, TN. This was also the weekend of the 500 mile US Hwy 11 "Yard Sale" extending from Meridian, MS through Bristol, TN and into Virginia. Sweetwater‚s main street is Hwy 11 and we stopped at an antique store open on Sunday capitalizing on wayward Yankees venturing South to carpetbag undervalued treasures.

Those days are over as we overheard a dealer commenting,"Antiques Roadshow has ruined the market!" The rural backroads of Tennessee offer no better bargains than the urban avenues of New York City now, but the grandmother tending the cash register at Antiques & More, 105 Main St, Sweetwater,TN, was friendly and had a dog, and being polite and liking dogs, we started talking with her.

She asked where we were from, and Sandra told her we had driven from Chattanooga (about 60 miles south) to buy fresh strawberries and had just kept driving. Phyllis Ann Bailey, while of grandmotherly age, still had a youthful appearance that attested to some recent years of living in Southern California before finding her way back to Appalachian Tennessee. She had also gotten a flat of strawberries from Tidwell‚s and had made several quarts of strawberry preserves. I believe she said her recipe was from her husband‚s grandmother, but she told me the recipe for the preserves and also for making jelly from the leftover juice. To make sure I had it, she wrote down the recipe on a 3 by 5 yellow note pad. Her recipe is "True Vine" and divine. Using the freshest of strawberries makes all the difference. Just like shrimp still wiggling off the boat, homemade pasta shimmering with fresh egg, and corn that still has the morning dew on it when you put it in the pot, strawberries just plucked from the plant have a taste that store bought berries can ever attain.

From her hand writ, Phyllis Ann Bailey's Sweetwater Strawberry Preserves:

Place 1 quart of hulled strawberries into a stainless steel or enamel pot along with 1 Tablespoon white vinegar. Bring to a rolling boil. Add 4 cups sugar and cook at a hard boil (one that cannot be "stirred down") for 20 minutes. Place in refrigerator overnight. Put up in heated sterilized jars and seal with paraffin wax.

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