May 15, 2011

In celebration of strawberry season, here's a re-print of an article I had published a few years back.

Straw-berries are neither grown on straw, nor are a berry. Discuss!

Etymology is a fascinating obsession. Sort of like looking at an atlas (remember them?) – time passes, many pages get turned and you realize you’re continents away from finding the capital of Malawi. You just wander away and fall down the rabbit hole.

Often, when I’m stressed, or absorbed in some mindless task like cleaning the wheatgrass out of the juicer, my racing mind needs something to occupy it. This is when a word, or phrase, will lodge itself in my mind and soon its perspective gets warped! Try this experiment and you’ll get my point. If you put your pants on before your socks, do it the other way around and embrace the weird feeling. That’s the way I got this week. Strawberries – ever wonder why they’re called, “Strawberries” and not the more feasible, and lovely word that the Italians use, “Fragola?”

Now to me, Fragola sounds like something teenage boys would yell out of a car! However, its meaning is quite innocent. Strawberries belong to the genus, Fragaria – part of the rose family (get out of here!), along with well, roses (duh!), apples (shut up!), and plums (no way!). Way. Fragaria is derived from the Latin word for fragrant. The modern Italian word for strawberry is Fragola. Phew!

Incidentally, be very careful with spellcheck. I once wrote an article on polenta. Spellcheck is no foodie, choosing the word placenta instead. That’s a whole different article.

It’s an exciting time of year to be a Produce Manager. We’re on the cusp of changing seasons in the produce world. Out with the old, in with the new. Right now we’re just coming into strawberry season for the cooler growing zones of the east coast of the USA. Strawberries are at their best between late April through June. Why then have the price and availability of strawberries suddenly become so erratic at markets? It’s all about the change of seasons. You see through the winter our east coast market strawberries have been coming consistently, and in high volume from sources not so close to the east coast: Northern California, Arizona, Mexico, and a little from Florida. We’re currently at a lull in availability just as the east coast is about to go into overdrive. Strawberries are on our produce order lists every time we order. However, in these shoulder ‘turnover’ seasons, just as one zone and set of growers is ramping down, another is just starting to come online, and availability (hence pricing) becomes erratic. If that frustrates you, try being the Produce Manager with the Store Manager breathing down your neck asking why you can’t plan out a strawberry festival at the store? Oops, did I say that out loud? Hang in there sparky, east coast growers are frantically talking to their plants and are poised to pick! 

Nutritionally strawberries are a stellar food – considered to offer a high concentration of nutrients for the calories they contain. They’re high in Vitamin C, Manganese, Dietary Fiber, Iodine, Potassium, Folate, B vitamins, Omega 3s, Vitamin K, Magnesium, and Copper. The phenols so beloved by Alton Brown are in high numbers in strawberries, which makes them high in antioxidants, and a good anti-inflammatory (seasonal allergies anyone?). Strawberries are great for eye health, and are thought to help protect against Rheumatoid Arthritis. Strawberries have also been used to cool a fever. Strawberries are low in fat and calories. With their lovely bright color, and delicate, sweet flavor, there’s a reason strawberries are the most popular berry fruit in the world.

Speaking of berries, this reminds me. Strawberries are technically not a berry, nor even a fruit! Why? Botanists classify true berries, such as blueberries and cranberries, by the fact that their seeds are on the inside. Botanists classify strawberries as a, “False Fruit,” or a, “Pseudocarp.” A strawberry is a multiple fruit consisting of many tiny individual fruits embedded in a fleshy receptacle. The brownish or whitish specks, which are commonly considered seeds, are the true fruits, called achenes, and each of them surrounds a tiny seed. Berry schmerry, they sure taste good! 

I’ve said many times in this column that nothing is black/white, either/or. The solution quite often is in the middle. We do the best we can with the available information and budget. However, when it comes to strawberries, I follow the advice of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG is famous for its “Dirty Dozen” recommendations on organic versus conventional produce. Their focus is on cost – one may reduce the cost of buying certified organic produce by prioritizing one of 12 (now 15!) varieties of produce that are the most heavily sprayed, or due to the relative thickness of their skin, retain the heaviest chemical load. Strawberries are one of the, “Dirty Dozen” (“Dirty Fifteen” doesn’t sound as cool). As we’ve proven at the Rehoboth Beach Cheese Company, when it comes to organic produce, as with many things in life, cost is quite often subjective, as in subject to many decisions!

The EWG found 13 chemical residues on conventional strawberries and 80 chemicals used on them during growing. Strawberries have thin skins, and are eaten whole without peeling. Strawberries are seen as a high priority to buy organic. That’s fine, I say you don’t have to buy them organic, as long as you know the source, or at least buy from someone who knows the source. Buy unsprayed, or organic. Either way it’s the same – no chemical residue. Farm workers are not exposed to hazardous chemicals, the soil is healthier, blah, blah, you’ve heard it from me before!

I’m not going to link to recipes. We all have our own favorites for this versatile fruit. In closing, here are some fun facts.

Native American Indians called strawberries, "Heart-seed berries" and pounded them into their traditional corn-meal bread. Colonists decided to create their own version, becoming an American favorite, “Strawberry Shortcake.”

Legend has it that strawberries were named by 19th Century English children who strung them on grass straws following picking, and sold them as "Straws of berries". It’s more likely that another 19th Century practice of placing straw around the growing berry plants to protect the ripening fruit named the fruit.
Strawberries have long been associated with love and flirtation. At wedding breakfasts in provincial France, newlyweds traditionally were served a soup of thinned sour cream, strawberries, borage and powdered sugar.

In 14th Century France, Charles V ordered twelve hundred strawberry plants for landscaping in the Royal Gardens of the Louvre. Given the propensity of strawberries to spread by extending ‘runners,’ I pity the poor gardeners!

Lastly, it has been known to rain strawberries in South Wales, UK. You read it here first! Our elderly next-door neighbor while growing up, following the French landscaping model could not contain her strawberry plants from running all over her garden. Consequently she had too many berries for her own kitchen. Knowing how much the children next door loved strawberries, our neighbor would pick them and throw them over the garden wall surprising many a guest and disrupting wash day…

Enjoy your strawberries this season - it's reportedly going to be a good one this year. In closing, please don't yell out of cars - it's rude to talk with your mouth full!

Don't forget - sign up for our REALdirect! greengrocer delivery service, and refer a friend between now and June 1 and stack discounts!


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