Post-Colonial Strawberries.

Frais de bois from my garden. Fragaria vesca I assume.

Frais de bois from my garden. Fragaria vesca I assume.

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 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.

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

Look at those sad little raspberries. They must feel so... inadequate.

Look at those sad little raspberries. They must feel so… inadequate.

It’s not really a metaphor though, is it? And I’m endlessly fascinated by fruit-eating as the consumption of another species reproductive material. 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.

Also, 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 endowed upon me by freshman elective biology, so I’ll just say that two sets of chromosomes is normal. Something freaky has to happen during reproduction for an organism to get more chromosomal sets, and live.

That said, we can all agree that Oregon strawberries are to California strawberries what sex is to masturbating to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. They 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 you can see 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. European horticultural strawberries (Fragaria ananassa) were supposedly brought here from Iowa in 1846 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 only produce about 2% of the total national crop.

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

That is a swollen receptacle covered with achenes, seed like fruit.

That is a swollen receptacle covered with achenes, seed like fruit.

No. Most Oregon strawberries aren’t raised for the fresh market. In ’81, 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 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’re way more people in this state now. Ya’ll have got to step it up.

But 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 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 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 is the terroir. But the 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 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, who 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 first around the new world before bringing it back to a garden in Marseilles, where it happily acquainted itself with the Fragaria virginiana, which had been brought to Europe from Eastern North America 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. So, in a sense, Oregon represents a sort of homecoming for our botanical patrimony, of which Southern California is a usurper. Indeed, the northernmost range of the California strawberry industry is Monterey Bay, the southern end of the range of our coastal Fragaria.

The agricultural imperialism of California reigns far and wide. Producing 80% of this country’s strawberries, defeating every other strawberry producer in the world in terms of volume, and exporting their own strawberry genetics back to the chiloensis’ far-flung ancestral home. In Chile, California ananassa cultivars, have displaced both European ananassa varieties (introduced in the 19th century) and the native chiloensis varieties, frutillas in the local dialect.

“So what’s the actual problem?”

For you asker, very little. But California has a heavily industrialized system of strawberry production which includes massive greenhouses of clones which have to be trucked up into the mountains near the Oregon border, presumably because they need that sweet kiss of Cascade air to imbue them with the false optimism that will drive them to reproduce in vain under the unrelenting California sun for the rest of their short lives. 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 also “mulched” with plastic to keep down weeds. It’s not that none of these practices are 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.