All too often we define our ideals in terms of what is convenient or cheap. The lowest common denominator fills our culture and our shelves with it and while the convenience appeals to us, we are often left detached and disinterested rather than engaged by the things we use or the things we eat. In my own case, the modern strawberry has become an object of flavourless disdain.
The finger-staining red softness of childhood memories have been replaced. Strawberries come from afar in plastic clam shell containers that can be stacked and shipped like a more durable good. There was a time when they came in flats with 12 wooden baskets. The thin wood of those baskets would be stained red and pink with the passage of time and regular use and the berries were treated with a degree of honour and delicacy granted to the seasonal. Those basketed berries were not to be laid into the bottom of a shopping cart while the haul from the rest of the rounds was stacked atop them without concern for their fragility. There was a need, a commitment to ensuring that they were well cared for. If they were picked up at the start of the grocery rounds, it was acknowledgement that berries were only in season for a few weeks and that everybody else would want them. In that instance, the berries would ascend the mounting pile of groceries, or better yet, have the child seat of the shopping cart reserved for them.
Of late, however, strawberries have grown larger and taken on the solidity of styrofoam. There is no longer a yield of pliant flesh to the first bite and a jammy, juicy sweetness. For that, we would have to open a jar complemented with ample doses of sugar to get. There is a white solidity and an absence of flavour that does not provide sufficient experience to grasp a philosophical discussion about the intensity and impact of a first taste of something. In this day of strawberries refined to ensure a consistency of (external) colour, a resistance to blight, and an ability to withstand the demands of a transcontinental shipment. These are what we actually purchase when we pluck one of those plastic containers of strawberries out of the produce section and take it home. We have purchased that combination of conveniences in a little — well, actually, larger than anticipated — red bundle that is an artifact rather than a eating experience.
I do not have the most refined palate, but I do recall real strawberries well enough to be disappointed with the absence of flavour of these "perfected" strawberries. Despite my attachment to them during childhood, modern strawberries have been drifted into the lower ranks of my comfort foods. There is little about modern strawberries and the adaptations that have been made to their monocultural approaches to growth — it is so tempting to reset to the word “manufacture” — and the sacrifice of purity and flavour in favour of the resistances to time and bugs and mold and whatever else may inconvenience farmers, shippers. Perhaps there has been an addiction to “one more improvement,” or an infatuation with technology’s wiles that resulted in a trade off between that last bit of flavour for the resistance to a blight that, in a rare season, might render the berries unappealing to consumers at that very moment when their appearance has to be pristine enough to close the sale.
Flavour be damned.
This plate of berries sit next to me as I type this. The aftertaste of the first one I’ve eaten is still lingering and there is no need to eat one after another. The first one was a vibrant red, the surface after my bite a soft blur of surrender rather than a precise, white capture of my dental records. On the white plate, I also notice a sprinkling of the bristles of the strawberries that have fallen and recall how these would cluster on the surface of the milk what I had them in a bowl with cream and sugar. I wonder if these bristles have been bred out of the modern, efficient version that now prevails. I’ll have to look for this the next time I come across the dry, high-tech imitation of the berry.
We settle too easily for appearance alone. At the height of the space age, we anticipated foods that would be efficient and convenient. I formed my own image of freeze-dried forms that would contain the required nutrition in a format that, today, is best embodied by the power bars and other sports fuels that people consume on the go rather than when we sit down to a meal. Today, the reality is that the foods we do eat are just as much an assembly of technologies that have only emerged in the last few decades. They look for the most part the way they did 30-40 years ago, but it is a product of mechanical and technological inputs rather than the ecology that they came from. The appearance might be appealing but there is a sad lack of flavour and some might even argue nutrition.
These strawberries, locally grown and bought in a little cardboard panier with a handle across the top are a thing to behold. (I must admit the handle is plastic but the result is a reminder of the basket Little Red Riding Hood took to her grandmother’s or that Ontario peaches once came in.) Of the berries remaining, the next one I eat is bruised. It is not soft and browning yet. There are a few patches where the surface has yellowed from rough contact and I am happy to assure it of my approval. Gulp. There are a few long stems on the remaining berries and one has an amusing posterior cleft. The reds are not that uniform among them. One is a blood crimson but the others are somewhat closer to one another in tone. With each berry eaten those bristles rain down on the keyboard of my lap top and I sweep them aside. No, these bristles don’t appear quite so abundantly on modern berries.
And so I pause over these last seven berries, their naturalness far more enchanting, absorbing and wondrous than the efficiencies that are settled for. My taste buds are proudly rallying to say they still have some value and sensitivity. As June winds down, I take comfort in this reminder that the seasons are meant to pass and be savoured, like these berries, rather than defied by imports from California or Chile. There is a plain beauty to these berries that distinguishes them from the super model beauty of the consistent dimensions of the imported, flavourless imitators. Beyond the humble, unrefined randomness of size and shape and colour, not to mention the flourishes of bristles they rain down, there is flavour and with that a depth that awakens me to much more than the superficial and the technological.