COLD STRAWBERRY soup stimulates honeymooners. So goes the thought in rural France. Medieval botanists believed that strawberries, being many-seeded, aided fertility. Both Venus and Freyja, Roman and Norse goddesses of love, were associated with the fruit. Mrs. Elton in Jane Austen’s Emma was hot for hautbois — haut boy in English, also known as a musk strawberry— the most aromatic, “infinitely superior.”
Ancient Chileans cultivated a walnut-sized beach strawberry, colored red or white or yellow. A spy smuggled these engorged berries to France in 1714; crossbreeding with tiny European species created most of the kinds we eat today. The prettiest-sounding are Brightmore, Klondike, Red Star, and Starbright. Pathfinder, Sparkle, and Temple are equally melodious. The Marshall, or Fragaria ananassa, was once touted as “the finest eating strawberry” in America. Its superior flavor buoyed the economy of Orcas Island in Washington State during the Great Depression. But the Marshall lacked hardiness and fell victim to “strawberry crinkle” disease. The barreling plant in the hamlet of Olga shut down in 1944, and Fragaria ananassa nearly went extinct. In the summer of 2018, the fruit was restored to the island thanks to the ten-year effort of artist Leah Gauthier.
According to the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences, a mother who has lost a child must not eat strawberries until St. John’s Day, when the Virgin distributes the fruit to the little children in heaven. If such a woman does not abstain, Mary tells the children their portion has been eaten.
My most favorite strawberry consumption vessel was my great-aunt Myra’s trifle. She acquired the recipe after fleeing to London from Vienna during World War II: sponge cake soaked in sherry; red (strawberry) Jell-O; custard; fresh, chopped strawberries; and homemade whipped cream. Heaven food. Delight of my little life.
My great-aunt Tushka was Miss Bucharest 1938. Once a week, she spent the day in bed for beauty rest. She steamed her face with chamomile tea, then rubbed a fresh, sliced strawberry on it — always in an upward motion. (The fruit acid, when drying, helps the flesh defy gravity, my mother said.) Was she inspired by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria? That nineteenth-century icon slept every night in a leather mask lined with strawberries — or raw veal.
Gossip of the royal family must have influenced Tushka as it had my grandmother, who at the age of ninety-six could remember such scandals as the double suicide of Franz Josef’s son and his lover as well as the airlift of Ethiopian Jews into Israel when she lived there in the 1980s. Strawberries in Israel are traditionally a winter fruit. New advances in agriculture allow Israeli farmers to grow strawberries in the Golan Heights year-round.
Spaniards often called Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights “the Strawberry Painting.” In the painting, hundreds of naked people cavort with oversize strawberries. The triptych, as far as we know, was not titled by the artist, though in 1593, when it entered King Philip II’s inventory, it was either referred to as The Vanity of the World or The Variety of the World. The handwriting suggested either banidad (vanity) or variedad (variety). The strawberries were said to represent the fleetingness of all things— this fruit, whose fragrance is sweet but whose flavor never lasts.
Madrid’s coat of arms depicts a bear on its hind legs eating the fruit of a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) —a shrub festooned with ruddy berries which, when squeezed, ooze mango-colored flesh. Does this explain, in part, the Spanish mania for Bosch and his most famous work? These tasteless berries may be even more appropriate to the purported moral of the triptych: the berries are so tempting, so red, but taste like nothing. Pliny claimed eating more than one causes a headache.
The “Olga and Beyond” brochure produced by the Olga Strawberry Council of Orcas Island relates the story of Higgie the Kodiak bear. As a fifty-pound cub, Higgie was given by a Mrs. Higginson to a Mrs. Rice in 1910. The bear grew rapidly to 1,100 pounds and often escaped its pen to gorge on nearby orchards and livestock; Higgie “met its fate while enjoying Sam Lightheart’s garden” in June of 1913. Poor Higgie, snout red with strawberry flesh. Higgie was the last bear ever to set foot on Orcas Island.
The enormous strawberries of Bosch almost prophesy the frankenfruit of today. Consider Marisa Laurito’s 2015 installation La Grande Bouffe in the Guatemalan pavilion of the Venice Biennale. There, in a life-size replica of a restaurant awash in blue light, an enormous fiberglass strawberry sits upon a table. Beauty impossible to eat, the exhibition catalog opines. The oversize fiberglass object suggests to me the flavorlessness of fruit cultivated primarily for appearance and hardiness against disease. Fruit crossed with the genes of fish. A hybrid after Bosch’s heart.
Recently, scientists have successfully grown strawberries in poor conditions —a deliberate step toward cultivating the fruit on Mars or the moon. Imagine a bulbous Bosch creature, pocked with gray craters, feasting on the edge of a dusty red canyon. Imagine it needing a sprinkle of sugar, a dollop of cream, a kiss. Imagine it slicing open a strawberry and sliding its rejuvenating acids upon its skin, pressing the liquid in with a tightly tied leather mask. Will Fragaria preserve beauty in the cosmos? How will its fleetingness fare on a different scale of space and time?
Anca L. Szilágyi is the author of the novel Daughters of the Air. Her writing appears in Lilith Magazine and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.