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Food in the 'Hood

Sex and the Single Strawberry — Part II

In Part I, an American fruit, the Virginian strawberry, arrives in Europe, while the Continent’s nobility embraces their own strawberry. In this second part, the story is continued.

The rich feasted on strawberries and cream. England’s Cardinal Wolsey, who first tried the dessert after a banquet of porpoise, popularized the treat. “Raw crayme undecocted, eaten with strawberries . . . is a rurall mannes banket,” the 16th century writer Andrew Boorde observed. He cautioned, however, that “such bankettes hath put men in jeopardy of their lyves.” France’s King Louis XIV, who delighted in strawberries in wine, ate the fruit voraciously. His doctor finally ordered him to stop his indulgence, because it was causing indigestion.

The nobility also appropriated the strawberry as a symbol of honor and virtue. The fruit was displayed on the coronets of English lords — six leaves for a duke, four for a marquis. The strawberry, herbalist John Parkinson felt, enhanced the stature of wealthy ladies. It was “fit for a Gentlewoman to weare upon her arm, as a raritie instead of a flower.”

The strawberry played a powerful mythic and symbolic role in Medieval and Renaissance culture. It epitomized purity and righteousness.

The sacred fruit had a strong attraction for monks, who drew its likeness in the borders of prayer books and in “illuminated” manuscripts. These drawings and tiny illustrations were done in special honor of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. For European painters, art historian Elizabeth Haught contends, the strawberry was the “symbol of perfect righteousness.”

In one early 15th century French miniature, Joseph extends a strawberry in his hand toward the child Jesus, encouraging him to walk. In Madonna of the Strawberries, the painter Martin Schongauer portrays the Virgin sitting on a raised bed of strawberries and wearing a garland of the fruit’s leaves.

This emblem of virtue also conveyed darker forces as well. In both the literary and the popular imagination, the strawberry’s inviting allure was often seen as a form of dissembling. The Roman poet Virgil creates an atmosphere of dangerous portent around the fruit. He warns children to be vigilant when picking strawberries: “Ye who cull flowers and low-growing strawberries, Away from her lads, a chill snake lurks in the grass.”

In Othello, Shakespeare masterfully employs the strawberry to suggest the web of falsity that ensnares his leading character. A handkerchief “spotted with strawberry” that Othello gave his beloved Desdemona disappears. The schemer Iago convinces Othello that this offering of trust has fallen into the hands of Cassio, who, he says, has been carrying on a secret liaison with Desdemona. Successfully manipulated, Othello rages against his wife.

A representation of Venus, the strawberry is prominent in the licentious scenes of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Oversized strawberries appear in the forefront of cavorting young nude figures. A short ravenous youth tries to bite into a fruit, whose massive size dwarfs him. Bosch’s voluptuous strawberries reveal the lusty appetites of the partiers in this seductive setting.

Real events in the tale of the strawberry would turn out to be as extraordinary as anything dreamed up in the imagination. The accidental arrival in Europe of a new strawberry from the Americas opens a fascinating chapter in the fruit’s history.

A French spy who stumbled on a large, fruited berry in Chile sets the story in motion. Amédée-François Frézier, a naval officer and engineer, whose family name ironically derives from the French word for strawberry, is sent on a mission to Chile and Peru by Louis XIV in 1712. His assignment was to gather information about Spanish fortifications, supply routes, and military assets.

While doing his surveys, a strawberry patch growing in a sand hollow near the Chilean town of Concepion caught his eye. The large fruit, which surpassed the tiny variety growing in Europe, was, he exclaimed, “big as a walnut, and sometimes as a hen’s eggs, of a whiteish red.”

The Chilean, or sand, strawberry was native to 10,000 miles of the Pacific coast from Alaska to the Southern tip of Chile. Indians domesticated the fruit, selecting the plants with the biggest berries. They dried the fruits in the sun and fermented them for wine.

Their homeland’s strawberries, the early Spanish settlers felt, were no match for these Latin American fruits. “They grow as big as pears,” the writer Alonzo de Ovalle observed of the Chilean berries in 1646.

Eager to introduce his countrymen to the striking berries, Frézier in 1714 potted runners from five plants to take on his voyage home. He chose those with the largest fruits. Unfortunately, only two plants survived the trip from Chile to France.

On his return, he donated the strawberries to private gardens. But their horticulturalists were unable to get the much-heralded plants to bear fruit. No one could explain the puzzling phenomenon.

Next month, in Part III, two American fruits meet and mate in the Old World.

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Strawberry Surprises

Mercadito Ramos (2213 14th St., NW; tel., 462-1440) sells Fanta strawberry soda, a soft drink popular with its Central American customers.

Smoothie King Dupont (1621 Conn. Ave.; tel., 239-5590) uses strawberries as one of the ingredients in drinks, it says, promote health and energy.

Copyright (c) 2010 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Joel Denker. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §§107 & 108 (“fair use”).

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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