Plastic Not-So-Fantastic Strawberries

Really fresh and really local: strawberries from our first harvest last year. They were completely superior to the ones available in the grocery store in every respect.

Is it just me, or have the strawberries you get in the grocery store become prettier and less flavorful over the past few years?

They are large, they are red, they are shapely and fragrant, but the fresh strawberries that are flooding the stores here in Ohio, which are predominately grown in southern California, have little to no taste and are a bit on the crisp side, which is great when we are talking about apples, but not so enticing when it is a strawberry I have nearly broken a tooth on.

Last spring is when I noticed that they all smelled really, really good–like sunripened strawberries still in the field. Which is what seduced me into buying a pint of them.

That one pint scented my entire car (a Subaru Forester), which is not small, meaning that little pint of gigantic strawberries was either endowed with a great deal of natural sugars and flavor, or it was made by the Yankee Candle Company. (Which I call Stanky Candle, because walking past one of thier stores with its melange of overly-fragranced candles is a sort of olfactory purgative for me.)

When I got home, I ripped open the clear clamshell package and rinsed off a berry. The sweet scent poured out of the fruit and I all but drooled down my chest in anticipation.

However, when I bit into the overly crisp, but lovely crimson fruit, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

Actually, I was deflated.

It tasted vaguely like watered down, barely sweetened strawberry flavored Kool-Aid.

I thought it was an anomaly.

I tried another berry.

I was wrong.

They were horrible, and they could very well have been made by Stanky Candle, for they were insipid to the point of pointlessness.

Yet, the next day when I went to the store, they were all but sold out.

Which led me to believe that either I was a freak of nature and just couldn’t taste the berries, or everyone else was getting duped along with me, or, everyone else happened to like crappy plastic flavorless berries that just happen to look and smell good.

Which led me to believe that the berries were bred to smell and look good, and ship well, but that the genetics for taste were somehow left out of the equation. Which works pretty well, if you think about it–once the grocery store has your money, what are you going to do about it? It isn’t like the strawberries are rotten, they are just not good. But they aren’t something you are going to get a refund on, right?

Zak agreed with me that they tasted like, well, nothing, really, and that maybe I wasn’t just being paranoid about agribusiness trying to take over the food world and inundate us with worthless food items wrapped up in pretty packages with bright colors and nice smells in order to trick us into buying them. This article in the New York Times confirms my suspicions that flavor has been sacrificed by commercial breeders in pursuit of a better looking berry. It is all a big hoax, a sham, those “seasonal” California strawberries, all tarted up in scarlet and smelling good, tricking consumers into thinking that is what a strawberry is about.

And we fall for it, because we don’t taste before we buy.

Well, that was the last pint of commercial berries I have bought, and I felt better for it. Besides, we had our own strawberry bed that produced a huge crop that year, such that for several weeks, we ate strawberries for breakfast every day. After the experience of going out into our front yard and eating fresh sunwarmed berries first thing in the morning, neither of us had the stomach to tolerate substandard faux-fresh fruit anymore.

So, this year, even though we don’t have a strawberry patch in the new house (yet), I will not buy any strawberries until the season for local berries starts here in May and June. There is just no point, because a pretty berry without flavor is just not worth the dirt it was grown in.


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  1. I have been confounded by the American flavorless strawberry ever since biting into my first Japanese strawberry — a taste that for me is nostalgia for everything a strawberry should be. The Japanese strawberry season begins in the middle of winter and ends pretty much as soon as it gets to be hot and sticky out. The berries aren’t cheap but they are beautiful and they still manage to be sweeet strawberry sensations! The best price I’ve found has been 300 yen for a clam shell of about fifteen berries, but usually the price is more like 500 yen. Nobody minds the price too much because they know they are buying something worthwhile(though I do keep myself from buying strawberries as much as I’d like). And Japan has a long tradition of purchasing over priced fruit. A package of strawberries for 500 yen is nothing compared to the package of gift strawberries sold at markets for 2000 yen — but then again, people in Japan still expect their fruits and vegetables to be just as flavorful as they ever were.

    And — one of the best things about a Japanese strawberry is finding it in the middle of a azuki bean paste mochi snack!

    Comment by Nicole — April 14, 2005 #

  2. They are also shipped somewhat green, like bananas, which messes up the suger-ripening process. I buy local berries and small bananas(the multi-culturality of Ottawa causes the local groceries to carry a very diverse selection of foods–there is almost always a choice between regular, tiny, plantain, and red for bananas)

    But, sadly, it is true about strawberries–if there was a competitive ‘good’ strawberry, then bad Californian SB’s would be selected against. In season, local berries outsell ‘Merican ones hugely but our season is June….

    It is a metaphor for life, since we are seduced by the avalibility of out-of-season produce AND the smell. What I don’t understand is how you can breed for smell and not flavor—isn’t the smell FROM the taste?? Obviously not since the smell is over and the taste is under whelming.

    Grrrrr–I will eat only Freedom Strawberries!!

    I liked the ramps stories–do you also buy and eat (and will you tell us a story about) fiddleheads?

    Comment by wwjudith — April 15, 2005 #

  3. Perhaps it is a case of The Emporer’s New Strawberries. It is definitely not just you. It must be something to do with our North American obsession with visuals and homogenizing everything in sight. If it looks good, it must taste good. And if we dare to say anything about the lack of taste, then there must be something wrong with us.

    This is the aspect of North American produce (I thought it was just an Ontario phenomenon) that I really loathe. But they really have us over a barrel. We can buy unripe strawberries or no strawberries. Here in Toronto, it is a rare occasion that one can get storebought strawberries that actually taste like strawberries. Even with local strawberries.

    It’s the same thing with peaches, tomatoes, apricots, etc. etc. I think the producers are so nervous about bruising that they pick when the fruit is at its hardest. A couple of late summers ago, I was in the Niagara area DURING peach season. I stopped at a roadside stand to get peaches that had been picked that day. All of them were hard and green. The lady at the stand looked at me as if I was completely off my rocker when I asked her why they had picked them before they were ripe.

    The ONLY time we have ever gotten fantastic peaches was one Septemer when we bought some slightly bruised windfall peaches from one of those Niagara stands. They were being swarmed by wasps and I seem to recall that we paid $1.00 for a large basket. Those peaches made the best pie… a peach pie to measure all other peach pies.


    Comment by ejm — April 15, 2005 #

  4. I am glad to know that even if the fruit prices are so high in Japan, the fruit is worth it, Nicole. The Japanese are very picky about food, and I find that to be an admirable quality in people. It may be part of why I feel such a strong draw towards Asian cuisines.

    Judith–I only ate fiddleheads for the first time in New Hampshire last spring, so I don’t have much experience with them. They are not common around here, at least, that I have noticed–but they are all over the woods in New England. And they are wonderful, very like little spirally asparagus spears.

    Look for another story featuring a local wild food soon, though!

    Most of the farmers around here, Elizabeth, pick at peak ripeness. It is only the grocery store fruit that is crunchy to the point of inedibility. I think that there is still a very rural/farm mindset in Ohio–we are still a heavily agricultural state–that people -know- what farm-fresh produce should taste like so they don’t demand the plastic stuff at the farmer’s market or farmstand.

    Thank Gaia for that–else, I would likely starve to death!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 18, 2005 #

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