To many, strawberries are the taste of summer. To me, and I’m sure to many other Wimbledon-obsessed Brits, they’re the taste of anticipation. Like Pavlov’s dogs, at the first notes of the jaunty BBC theme tune that announces a match at the world-famous tennis competition, we’re ready to inhale all the strawberries we can get our hands on. And when we experience the crushing disappointment as whichever hapless Brit we’ve pinned our hopes on crashes out in the quarterfinals, we eat even more strawberries and drown our sorrows in cream.
If you’re unfamiliar, strawberries and cream is Wimbledon’s signature dish. Why this should be the case is most likely just a lucky coincidence. British strawberry season is short and delicious, and occurs at exactly the same time as the tournament. What else, the founders of the tournament back in 1877 must have thought, would one eat?
Over the course of 14 days, visitors consume around 28,000 kg of strawberries, or more visually, 118,349 cups (if about 8 strawberries make a cup, that's 946,792 strawberries total). They’re picked at a farm in Kent and driven to Wimbledon as dawn breaks over center court. Then they all need to be washed and hulled, carefully arranged in bowls, and semi-submerged in a puddle of fresh Lancashire cream (1850 gallons in total). Insider info: Misshapen berries that don’t make the cut are officially supposed to be set aside or thrown away, but are actually mostly eaten by the hullers and sellers. That was the news I needed for this job to become my teenage ambition.
I grew up near Wimbledon, close enough for Aunty Shirley and Uncle Elwyn to park on my parents' driveway the year they got tickets in the post-in ballot. The first sign that tennis season was imminent occurred every late, grey winter; local residents would receive a letter asking whether we’d like to rent out our houses for the fortnight. Every year, my parents thought about it, then thought about having to clear cupboard space for our visitors and thought again. My friend Amanda’s parents had a house with an actual tennis court, dilapidated and net-less, but still in existence, so they often got a second, pleading follow-up letter in March, wondering if the first had been lost in the post.
This was the signal for everyone to apply for a brief summer job, as I did at the age of 16. We all threw our hats into the ring for any kind of employment and got assigned work based on, well, who knows what exactly. Elly—all 100 lb. of her—worked as a security guard. James was a court coverer, which mostly involved standing around until the first drop of rain hit the grass, then heaving tarpaulin over it. Tom worked in the dressing rooms. Tina from church drove, and still drives, players to their matches, and never once gossiped about it, which I totally would have done, which is probably why I was accepted into a position in catering, instead. Wealth and free strawberries would be mine, I fondly hoped.
“Not a chance,” said my mother glancing at my job offer letter. “Wimbledon starts in the middle of your exams.”
“Other people’s mothers let them,” I whined. But there was no reasoning with someone who thinks that “your whole future” is more important than “hulling bucket-loads of fruit,” so that was that. Wimbledon would play on, and I would watch it, not from the on the outside courts on my lunch break, but on the tiny TV on the kitchen counter, physics revision flashcards in one hand, bowl of strawberries in the other.
I daydreamed about being an official ticket holder, fancily waltzing onto Center Court and relaxing in my seat. I’d even be okay with a seat at the top near the back, I decided. I mean, a front row box would be preferable, but I’d survive. Unfortunately, it is hard to get tickets to Wimbledon. Like, really hard. Even if you could throw a tennis ball from your garden and hit the back fence of the stadium (thinking of you, Mrs. Heal, who used to babysit me and let me do exactly that), you—like my parents—might spend decades applying for tickets and never come up on the ballot.
“Honestly,” my Dad said once, as he threaded the TV wire out through the kitchen window into the garden so we could watch the tennis from the swing on the patio, “it would be easier to train you girls to be tennis champions so we could go and cheer you on, than it would be to actually get tickets.” Easier for him, perhaps.
Every Wimbledon, tennis fever overcame my sister and I. For as long as the tournament lasted (but not a day longer), we’d spend hours whacking a ball on a string round and round the pillar stuck into the increasingly bedraggled front lawn. Strangely, this seemed to make no marked difference to our tennis skills.
The best way to get into the tournament—besides being an actual tennis player, a minor Royal, or signing up for a job—was to line up along the wall outside from about 7 a.m. and wait for people to leave, posting their tickets in the “resale for charity” box. Around 6 or 7 p.m., the line would sporadically spurt forward as champagne-soused expense account execs would despair of the rain ever stopping and go home, freeing up their seats so we could shiver on an outside court, waiting for a break in the clouds and a couple of hours of action before nightfall. My best friend Melanie and I did this every year for years, braving either floods or sunstroke, seemingly never anything in the middle, picnicking on Marmite sandwiches, Blue Ribbon biscuits, and strawberries straight out of the plastic carton as we slumped on the grass verge and read back issues of Just Seventeen.
One year, amid huge excitement, my school was given the opportunity to take the under-18 girls tennis squad to court 1 to see a match. Since I was on the squad (all the ball whacking in the garden worked!), I got an official ticket. On our best behavior, we lucky 6 swanked through the green turnstiles wearing our school tennis kit, fondly hoping people might mistake us for Junior Champions or some-such, and settled into our plastic chairs. As heartthrob of the day, Goran Ivanisevic, crushed his opponent, we pooled our Saturday job money and shared a bowl of strawberries and cream. We were on the inside. It wasn’t raining right now. We had arrived.
And yet...something wasn’t quite right. The view from the inside was better, to be sure, but the air felt rarified, the authentic experience felt strangely inauthentic. After years of living Wimbledon-adjacent, I realized I preferred having friends round for tea, tennis highlights in front of the TV, and all the strawberries and cream (or more likely low-fat yogurt—thanks, Mum!) our parents would sanction, in the comforts of our homes. That’s pretty much how I watch the tournament now, from my sofa in New York, where I live.
Except now that I’m the grown up, I can eat all the strawberries and cream I want.
Do you have fond memories of Wimbledon? Let us know in the comments!