My Auntie Stella’s strawberry chiffon pie was an airy, creamy confection of crushed berries, whipped cream and meringue lightly held together with gelatin and complemented by a crisp Crisco crust. This dessert was so delectable, it could almost make you forget how hard it was to grow those berries.
I would know. I earned my first dollar at age six picking strawberries on my knees with my grandparents.
In 1952, my grandparents were still getting back on their feet after spending World War II in an American concentration camp for looking like the enemy that bombed Pearl Harbor. They’d lost their house and their farm, so they were working as sharecroppers.
Auntie Stella didn’t make those pies when we all lived in a Driscoll’s strawberry camp. In those days, eggs and cream were expensive, and you had to drive into town to get them. And the good berries were not for us; they were sent to market. We salvaged the ones that rotted where they’d been touched by mud. We cut off the bad parts and ate them with sugar and evaporated milk.
I can’t eat strawberries nowadays because most are under-ripe and tasteless. And every time I see berries labeled “Driscoll’s,” my heart clenches. Technically, I suppose, the company was not guilty of child labor because my baachan, my grandmother, gave me that dollar and not the company. But Driscoll’s was a small strawberry grower before the war. They grew larger after their Japanese competitors were imprisoned, and still larger after the war when they hired the formerly incarcerated as sharecroppers.
Driscoll’s likes to boast it has been a family-owned business for over a hundred years, through four generations. But my baachan’s produce farm would have passed the century mark if it had survived World War II.
My grandparents raised peas, lettuce, and cantaloupe on a 140-acre seaside ranch since 1915, but they could not buy the land, only lease it. Unlike European immigrants who could blend into red-white-and blue Americana as fast as they could lose their accents and change their names, Asian immigrants like my baachan and jiichan couldn’t even become naturalized citizens. The color of their skin made them “unassimilable” and therefore “ineligible for citizenship,” and Alien Land Laws that targeted Asian immigrants without naming them declared that only U.S. citizens could buy land in California and a dozen other states.
From about 1890 to 1920, Japanese immigrants like my grandparents were welcomed as a source of cheap labor. But they didn’t want to remain laborers and field hands. They began renting marginal scraps of land too small for growing grain or cattle. By combining American materials and technology with intensive Japanese farming methods and cooperative distribution networks, their family farms prospered along with California’s growing population. By 1940, people of Japanese ancestry grew 40% of California’s fruits and vegetables and 50% of its flowers.
Some people claim the mass incarceration of Japanese immigrants in the U.S. during World War II was a matter of national security, but others say it was an excuse for a land grab. Not one person of Japanese ancestry was ever found guilty of espionage or sabotage. But many, especially the younger ones, could never shake the feeling that the incarceration was somehow their fault.
Baachan and Jiichan understood they’d been incarcerated because they were Japanese. They were certain it wasn’t wrong to be Japanese; it was racism that was wrong. Nevertheless, they didn’t waste their time on bitterness. Shikataganai, some things couldn’t be helped. Better to focus on the here and now and put one foot in front of the other.
When my grandparents were released from a “war relocation camp” in 1946, they were penniless, forced to start from scratch without savings or farm equipment. They’d lost the lease to their beautiful 140-acre ranch, arsonists had burned down their farmhouse, and the local paper was still rabidly anti-Japanese. Friends who were able to return home because their property had been looked after by a white friend, reported that many locals held them personally responsible for the carnage of the Pacific War. The returnees had to sleep on the floor in interior halls of their homes because locals drove by at night to shoot out their windows—until the FBI sent agents to keep watch overnight. By day, many businesses refused to sell returning Japanese hardware, insurance, or even gasoline.
Baachan and Jiichan decided to head north to the Santa Clara Valley, where the political climate was friendlier. They sheltered in a friend’s barn until they figured out what to do. Many friends went into gardening because all they needed to get started was a used pickup and a lawn mower. But my grandparents heard that they could sharecrop strawberries with Driscoll’s. In 1946, Driscoll’s supplied desperate families with acreage, housing, farm equipment, fertilizer, insecticide, and seedlings. The Japanese brought cheap labor and agricultural knowhow that enabled Driscoll’s to vastly expand their operations. In exchange, the workers got a share of crop sales at harvest time, but after deductions for expenses, they didn’t end up with much money. My grandparents went from tar-paper barracks in the searing Arizona desert to tarpaper sharecropping shacks populated exclusively by the formerly incarcerated.
After losing their own ranch, it was quite a comedown for my grandparents to start from scratch, but they relied on their Buddhist values to release anger or self-pity. They trusted that karma works out in the end, so they picked up their hoes every morning with typical Issei stoicism and went out to the fields to do what they loved—till the soil and help things grow. Baachan and Jiichan finally got citizenship in 1956 after almost 50 years in America. They sharecropped for ten years to save enough money to buy just ten acres of their own.
In the 1950s, strawberry camps had a lifespan of five to seven years—a year to prepare the soil, build support systems and set the plants, another year for the berries to begin bearing fruit, followed by several years of good harvests before the soil was depleted of nutrients and the enterprise moved on to another parcel of land.
When I was six, Coyote camp, south of San Jose, was just getting started. Jiichan and his co-workers built the outbuildings, harrowed, disked and fertilized the hard adobe soil, and corrugated it into a pattern of ditches and raised beds. In 1952, iron pipe was expensive and PVC pipe non-existent, so they carpentered together irrigation flumes out of 1 x 12-inch planks caulked with tar and buried flush into the ground. Along one wall of each flume they cut two-inch holes that could be stoppered with wooden bungs. When the holes were opened, water flowed into ditches that ran between long rows of raised beds.
As the men prepared each section of land, Baachan and the other women nursed seedlings in the nursery until they were strong enough to transplant. They knelt in the ditches between the planting beds and planted widely spaced seedlings. When the first plants sent out runners, the women transplanted them in turn to fill out the beds. Meanwhile, the men built a large shipping shed and dozens of little wheeled carts big enough to hold flats of twelve strawberry baskets.
At harvest time, everyone, even little kids like me, pushed the carts ahead of us as we walked on our knees down row after row of berries. We plucked the shiny ripe berries by carefully cutting the stems with our thumbnails to leave the pretty green hulls intact for market. We pulled off any over-ripe fruit and tossed it on the ground so it wouldn’t drain nutrients from the plants. By the end of the day, the lower legs of our jeans were stiff with rotten-strawberry mud.
Today, no one in my family farms, but Driscoll’s is now the largest berry distributor in the world, with growers in over twenty countries. Their PR department attributes their success on developing new hybrid berries and inventing the plastic clamshell container. They don’t mention the company’s long history of strikes, boycotts and lawsuits over long hours, low wages, unsanitary or unsafe conditions, child labor, sexual predation, and other abuses.
They don’t mention Baachan and Jiichan.
My grandparents loved farming; it was all they knew, but Mom and my Auntie Stella were American-born Nisei who couldn’t wait to shake off the dust and poverty of the farm. They pegged their hopes on Gregg shorthand courses, Simplicity dress patterns, and the Betty Crocker Cookbook. It took my relatives ten years of sweat to get out of sharecropping. Then the family scattered to new homes and better jobs. Mom and Auntie Stella eventually got their spotless dream homes surrounded by green lawns and swept sidewalks, and the family only got together at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And it was Auntie Stella’s strawberry chiffon pies that became a sanitized connection to the past and a reminder to me of that first hard-earned dollar.