In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
You might have seen tiny, wild strawberries growing in the woods or even in your back yard. Wild strawberries, which are indigenous to both the Old and New World, are the ancestors of the modern-day, much bigger commercial strawberry. According to Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food, “Strawberry cultivation, using European wild species, had begun by the 14th century, but progressed slowly until the colonization of the Americas and the discovery of Fragaria virginiana, enjoyed both fresh and dried by American Indians.” In the “fruitful” exchange of plants between the two worlds, wild strawberries from both North and South America, were eventually naturally hybridized with European species to create F. x ananassa. We are largely indebted to the English who pioneered large-scale systematic strawberry-breeding programs that resulted in strawberries of “remarkable size and flavor” in the 1820s.
So that’s the science. What I most concern myself with when choosing the strawberries for my family is the husbandry and cultivation practices used by today’s growers. In my opinion, not all strawberries are “produced” equally. Ten years ago, I would take a Saturday afternoon to go pick strawberries at a “U-Pick” establishment near my home. I won’t do that anymore because I have since learned too much about the high levels of chemicals used on most commercial strawberries. Those include fumigants and pesticides like methyl bromide that berry farmers inject along with a companion chemical, chloropicrin, into the soil a few weeks before planting. This chemical duo zaps soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria that can cause plant diseases. Strawberries grown under these conditions are likely to contain systemic pesticide residues in the flesh of the berries that cannot be rinsed off. I have personally experienced allergic reactions after eating them.
I do have some sympathy for the poor farmers trying to fight the elements in getting these ambrosial gems to our tables, but in addition to disliking the chemicals they employ in the process, I find that their mass-production methods counterproductively zap the inherent sweet taste of strawberries. Fortunately, methyl bromide is being phased out because it has been identified as an ozone depleter, but unfortunately, farmers and scientists are scrambling to find chemical replacements. It remains to be seen whether the replacements will be any better than the original. Also, a good sign that something is wrong is how quickly strawberries rot, both before the berries ripen in the fields and in the refrigerator. Rapid deterioration may be a sign of nutrient deficiencies tied to soil health.
Agricultural scientists are working on varieties of strawberries that would fit into integrated pest management programs that include minimal use of chemicals to control pests and diseases. However, their efforts are complicated by the fact that strawberries are very finicky creatures and need to be cross-bred to produce varieties specifically adapted to the environments in which they are grown.
Rather than concern myself with the next pesticide to come along, I exclusively seek out organically grown strawberries and don’t make exceptions–no matter how externally beautiful they appear. Of course, I am prepared to pay the farmer the extra amount it took him to raise his strawberries with careful husbandry. In general, organic strawberries are produced by more labor-intensive methods and on a much smaller scale–not in massive fields plied with a myriad of unpronounceable synthetic chemicals. Hence, the organic strawberries I buy at my local farmer’s market cost five dollars a quart–and they are worth every penny. Even better is to go pick your own, as Sally Fallon and I did recently. We came home from a beautiful organic farm in Pennsylvania with several boxes of ripe berries, red all the way through and so sweet. While picking our way through the patch, we noticed that there were virtually no rotten berries, not even among those that lay on the ground. That’s a sign of healthy soil!
So after you find your own source of local organic strawberries, what can you do with them? First of all, find a local source of real cream–preferably raw. For an ideal summer treat, top your fresh strawberries with a big spoonful of cream that has been whipped with granulated maple sugar–that is, dehydrated maple syrup–a mineral-rich natural sweetener. And better yet, serve strawberry shortcake created by layers of organic strawberries and whipped cream with hazelnut torte from Nourishing Traditions.
Strawberries are a rich source of vitamin C and furnish folate–a B vitamin–plus potassium and fiber. They are also a good source of ellagic acid, an antioxidant that some say helps detoxify carcinogens. Interestingly, the highest amount of ellagic acid is found in the plant leaves; and it is more concentrated in the seeds than the fruit pulp. Scientists are pursuing ways to boost ellagic acid content in strawberries.
Unfortunately, a few individuals are allergic to strawberries in general, grown with or without chemicals. In France, it is customary for the woman of the house to have a bite of the strawberries she is preparing for the dessert–sort of like a homeopathic antidote against allergic reactions. For me, some berries upset my stomach–even organic ones–if I don’t pre-rinse them in slight dilution of vinegar for about five minutes. I don’t know what this changes, but it works for me.
For more information:
“Strawberry Growers Test Methyl Bromide Alternatives,” Marcia Wood, January 2001, Agricultural Research, p. 4-8.
“Boosting Ellagic Acid in Strawberries,” Doris Stanley, August 1997, Agricultural Research, p. 16-18.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2002.