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The Spy and the Strawberry Sweet Spot

The strawberry is the undisputed prince of berries. It’s the first to ripen, has the least obtrusive seeds, and it’s red. It’s juice is evenly distributed throughout the flesh, so it’s all tender and, in really good specimens, the tart-sweet balance is as precise as a knife. Biting into a strawberry is the closest your mouth will ever come to experiencing the intensity of pleasure that your genitals enjoy.

“Arbiter, why you being all dirty about strawberries? It’s making me uncomfortable and everybody knows that food/sex metaphors are totally played anyway.”

It’s not really a metaphor though, is it? No, fruit seeds get dispersed through animals, so they really are using the temptation of sweetness as a mechanism to find their way inside of you. Put a perfectly ripe Hood or Puget Crimson between your teeth and let it sit there for as long as you can before biting. As the digestive enzymes of your saliva break down the flesh, your teeth begin to slowly, irresistibly, cut through the soft flesh, releasing more and more nectar. I can’t go more than 30 seconds or so before that juicy reproductive organ is down my gullet, and I’m thirsty for more.

Fruits are, as I know you know, the enlarged, fertilized ovaries of the flower. But it turns out that the juicy, delicious part of a strawberry isn’t the fruit at all. It’s a pseudocarp, a false fruit, because the “seeds” on the surface are actually complete fruits.  The fleshy red part is the swollen receptacle on which the ovary containing carpels rest. Still, to my patriarchal, heteronormative worldview, a swollen receptacle sounds damn sexy.

What’s more: strawberries are genetic freaks, and the various species contain from two (diploid) to ten (decaploid) sets of chromosomes, depending on the species. I’ve already exceeded the limits of knowledge endowed upon me by freshman elective biology, so I’ll just say that two sets of chromosomes is normal. Something freaky (abnormal even) has to happen during reproduction for an organism to get more chromosomal sets, and live.

That said, I hope we can all agree that Oregon strawberries are to California strawberries what sex is to masturbating to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Albion strawberries from California look exactly the way they’re expected too. If you stare intently while really straining your imagination they resemble real pleasure, but they’re all size and sheen, and no juice. We need sweetness, tartiness, aroma, some goddamn juice in our berries in Oregon! This isn’t just me waxing poetic here either. I know how you nerds love science, so here is a chemical analysis proving that Oregon strawberries are objectively tastier than those from our white trash, nouveau riche, southern kick dog.

Western Oregon enjoys (yes, enjoys!) an ideal strawberry climate. Horticultural strawberries (Fragaria ananassa) were supposedly brought here from Iowa in 1837 and have been a major part of our agricultural landscape ever since. That landscape has diminished steadily since the 1970s. In 1981, Oregon raised over 52 million pounds of strawberries. In 2012 we produced just over 21 million pounds, less than half that quantity. We’re still the third producer nationally, trailing far behind those cheap tricks California and Florida (where else would you find such vapid insipidity packaged and exported for national consumption?) but we produce less than 2% of the total national crop.

“But I always buy at least a flat a year during strawberry season. All this “buy local” ethic has to help the industry somewhat?”

Not really: most Oregon strawberries aren’t raised for the fresh market. In 1981, almost 47 million pounds went to the processor, while strawberry fanatics like us consumed a paltry 4.5 million pounds. In fact, and maybe this will shock you as much as it does me, we consumed only 3.5 million pounds fresh in 2012. The eighties ate more delicious fresh strawberries than us, and that ain’t right. On the other hand, that 3.5 million pounds represents 16% of the total 2012 harvest, while in 1981 Oregonians ate only 8% of the crop fresh from the field. Still, there are way more people in this state now. Ya’ll have got to step it up.

The big lesson here is this: We are never gonna locally eat our way to strawberry dominance. Oregon is a processed strawberry producer, and the world basks in our munificence. In fact, Oregonians are merely the marginal beneficiaries of that processed market. Since processing means that the berries can be picked at the height of ripeness and processed shortly thereafter, Oregon strawberry varieties have been bred for flavor and aroma rather than sturdiness. So the continuing flavor superiority of Oregon strawberries is as much a result of the market forces driving the processed-versus-fresh industry as the terroir. But that terroir has a fascinating backstory.

Fragaria chiloensis, what we here usually call the coast strawberry, is native to the Pacific fog belt from Alaska to Central California. You could say (as I do) that Oregon rests in the sweet spot. It’s assumed that migratory birds were responsible for it’s translocation to coastal Chile (and Hawaii), where it was cultivated around the mouth of the bíobío river by the Mapuche and Picunche tribes. They enlarged its pseudocarp through selective breeding, drank it’s fermented juice, and passed it on to the Inca, as a form of obeisance, who carried it upriver for their own gardens (this is not some postcolonial allegory—I am not making this up.) The Spanish, for whom “the large, elite berries were considered a bounty of conquest,” spread the chiloensis strawberry around western South America.

But, somehow, inexplicably, they never got it back to the Old World. Those dirty conquistadors were looking for gold, and their single-minded pursuit of a mineral cost them more than just a terrifying trip into the Amazon looking for El Dorado. It cost them the privilege of forever being remembered for elevating the act of fruit-eating to the sensually divine.

In fact, it was a spy for the throne of Louis the 14th, a real genius named Amédée-François Frézier, who brought the improved Fragaria chiloensis back to Marseilles in 1712, where it happily acquainted itself with the Fragaria virginiana. That species, whose range extends from the East Coast all the way to the Pacific fog belt, had been brought from Virginia to England in probably the 17th century. This marriage gave birth to the Fragaria ananassa, the familiar garden strawberry from which practically all modern agricultural varieties are derived. The Pacific Northwest being home to both species, the 1836 arrival of garden strawberries to Fort Vancouver represents a sort of homecoming for our botanical patrimony, of which Southern California is a usurper. Indeed, the California strawberry industry spans from Monterey Bay southward, which is the southern end of the range of our coastal strawberry. Presumably, if chiloensis‘ genetics had found the Southern California climate welcoming, it would have sprung up there on its own accord. Whatever, nothing stops a Californian, not even good taste and decorum.

The agricultural imperialism of California reigns far and wide. It produces 80% of this country’s strawberries, defeating every other strawberry producer in the world in terms of volume, and exporting it’s own strawberry genetics back to the chiloensis‘ far-flung ancestral home. From Chile to Ecuador, California ananassa cultivars have displaced both European ananassa varieties (introduced in the 19th century) and the native chiloensis varieties, called frutillas in the local dialect. If you travel to those areas looking for frutillas now, you will encounter seas of California varieties instead.

“So what’s the actual problem?”

For you asker, very little. But California’s heavily industrialized system of strawberry production includes massive greenhouses of clones which have been trucked down from near the Oregon border, presumably because they need that sweet kiss of Cascadian air to imbue them with a false optimism that will drive them to reproduce in vain under the unrelenting California sun for the rest of their short lives. California raises their strawberries as annuals, tearing them out and starting with fresh plants every year. The fields are fumigated with methyl bromide (technically banned as a large scale fumigant, but used under special EPA exemption by California strawberry growers, because it’s so fucking urgent that we eat bland strawberries all year) and covered with plastic to make sure everything dies, dies, dies, dead. The fields are “mulched” with plastic to keep down weeds, hence the term “plasticulture.” It’s not that these practices aren’t used anywhere else, but they were developed in California, and they are the industrial inputs upon which this whole Driscoll-plastic-box empire rests. This is the industrial strawberry system that is being adopted by large-scale growers the world over. They do all this work, and winter, spring, or summer their strawberries still suck.

Published in botany Science Uncategorized

One Comment

  1. Hi Mike,

    I’m with the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) and we have a quarterly publication called Pomona (which has been sharing articles like this and citizen science fruit growing research for 50 years). Would you be willing to share your article with us for a future issue? We’d include your name, website, and whatever else you’d like to be included. I really like this article and think it would be perfect for our (volunteer) publication.


    Eliza Greenman

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