MARTHA SEZ: ‘I am sentimental about strawberries’

It’s strawberry season! I just baked a strawberry rhubarb pie with very juicy berries from Rulfs Orchard, and I think I overcompensated for their juiciness by using too much cornstarch. We’ll see.

I am sentimental about strawberries. They bring back childhood memories of foraging in Michigan fields and woodlands with my grandfather. From Granddad I learned about bugs and other wild creatures from rabbits to mud turtles, about wildflowers and, of course, wild strawberries. In June, I would take a bowl or a basket to a field near our house, where I spent peaceful, solitary afternoons picking berries. Those I didn’t eat I brought home to my grandmother, Rose. She taught me how to bake pie and the biscuits used in making strawberry shortcake.

“Don’t toughen up your dough!” Rose cautioned. She also warned against the overuse of cornstarch and other thickening agents.

While there are many varieties of wild strawberries with varying degrees of sweetness and flavor, as a rule wild and local berries are sweeter and juicier than those from large commercial growers.

Commercial berries have to be sturdy and tough enough to withstand shipping across the country. Wild strawberries are typically tender, red all the way through and full of juice. They are usually very small, and the chipmunks, birds, deer, groundhogs, raccoons and rabbits are apt to get to them before you do.

Someone once asked me how I knew certain plants were wild strawberries and not poison ivy, which also grew in the vicinity. Everyone knows that poison ivy, like a strawberry plant, has three leaves. Well, because I know a strawberry plant when I see one! Just the way you know a Dodge Ram or Ford Taurus, the same way you can tell your dog apart from the dog down the street.

I like to refer to a 2017 “New Yorker” article by Dana Goodyear titled “How Driscoll’s Reinvented the Strawberry.” According to Goodyear, about one third of all the strawberries found in our supermarkets are supplied by Driscoll’s, a company that develops hybridized fruit that is sturdy enough to be shipped all over the United States and abroad. Traveling by train from the Burbank airport to Ventura, I have passed through the town of Oxnard, California, where Driscoll Strawberry Association is located and millions of berries are grown. California produces about 91% of commercially grown strawberries in the United States.

Strawberry breeders are extremely competitive, zealously guarding their breeding secrets from one another. Driscoll’s scientifically breeds strawberries designed to appeal to “a public whose idea of ‘strawberry’ is influenced by strawberry syrup and red Popsicles,” with an emphasis on appearance and durability, Goodyear wrote. A Driscoll’s berry is large and heart-shaped, “firm enough to ship to the East Coast or to the Middle East and eat two weeks past the harvest date.”

She discusses the wild strawberry, whose “aromatic profile reflects an abundance of methyl anthranilate (MANT), a natural chemical compound that is rarely found in cultivated varieties, and that calls to mind grape Jolly Ranchers.” MANT is widely used in the flavoring and cosmetics industry to give grape scent and flavor.

Methyl anthranilate is not found in commercial strawberries like Driscoll’s. That’s why “Grandma is willing to drive 50 miles to buy strawberries,” as my grandchildren pointed out.

Commercially grown strawberries, even organic berries, often depend upon plastic mulch during their growing season. Long, thin sheets of polyethylene heat the soil and keep down weeds. Unfortunately, there is no method of sustainably disposing of plastic mulch film. Last year at Rulfs Orchard, my grandchildren, Emma and Jack, picked strawberries with me. It was a beautiful day for it, not too hot or buggy. Now here is a surprising thing.

There we were, just arrived in the big berry fields of Rulfs Orchard — where, by the way, you will find no polyethylene — when Emma bent down and picked a ripe strawberry. She bit into it and made a puzzled, considering face.

“This tastes funny,” she said. “It tastes like grapes. No, it tastes like artificial grape flavoring.”

I was bowled over. Yes! I could never have identified it myself, but my granddaughter actually recognized and commented on the presence of MANT in the distinctly non-Driscoll Rulfs Orchard strawberry. I was glad when she eventually decided she liked it.

I only wish Jack and Emma were here to help me eat this pie. Emma would have a word or two to say about the cornstarch.

Have a good week.

(Martha Allen, of Keene Valley, has been writing for the Lake Placid News for over 20 years.)

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