SEE THIS?" ASKS EVA BABER, HOLDING UP A bloodred strawberry, the tiny green leaves of its cap curling back from the fruit. "That's what you're looking for. That's a dead-ripe berry."
The Alexandria Farmer's Market, where Eva sells berries on Saturday mornings, is one of the oldest in the country, started in 1749. And Eva Baber has been there for 43 years, longer than any other living vendor. "Don't ask me to tell you how old I am," she jokes, "because I have to go to church tomorrow." She does admit to being the youngest of 13 children of a Bucks County, Pa., farmer who raised tomatoes for Campbell Soup.
She arrives at 3:15 in the morning to get her favorite spot, along the northeast wall of Market Square Plaza. "If you're Pennsylvania Dutch like I am," she says, "you don't waste a minute. I'm in the berries from the 15th of May till the 15th of October. Then I sew all winter. See this callus?" she asks, holding up a finger. "That's 'cause I don't use a thimble. I make three quilts each winter."
Her berry season is a succession of ripenesses. First come strawberries, then red raspberries, tayberries (a cross between a red raspberry and a blackberry), then old-fashioned blackberries (the big ones), then one more crop each of red raspberries and blackberries.
"Some people ask me how come my berries aren't as big as some," she says, cocking an eyebrow in the direction of a competitor. "I say, 'Let me tell you something. My strawberries aren't shipped in from anywhere. And they aren't hollow inside like those shipped-ins. I pick every one of these berries myself.' "
A customer approaches with two pints and hands them to Eva to bag. "I've been thinking about your berries all winter long," she confides.
"Thank you so much," says Eva. "I'm putting a couple more in here just in case you got a soft one or two."
"I do like to talk," she says as the customer leaves. "If it weren't for Saturday, I don't know what I'd do. This is better than medicine. My husband never says 25 words. He worked for Vepco until nine years ago, when he got hit by 19,900 volts. It was a miracle in electrical history for him to survive what he did. So I feel lucky. And from him who much is given, much is desired. That's what the Good Book says. You gonna buy some berries?"