Favor mushy strawberries over perfect-looking, less juicy

You’ll find strawberry shortcake, a perennial topic of discussion; disagreement; and pleasure at the Charlotte Senior Center on June 19.

In 1931, soon after publication of a New York Times editorial praising strawberry shortcake, an irate letter writer complained of “the pale and insipid illegitimate offspring of a degenerate sponge cake and an inner tube,” further describing this item as “that effete, magenta delicacy — a spongy space-filler, usually demoralized by a deluge of whipped cream.” He added this advice: “If you would enjoy the food of the gods … make a thin pie crust.”

classic strawberry shortcake on a sweet buttermilk buscuit

Since the 17th century Puritan minister Roger Williams noted that Indians “bruise strawberries with a mortar to make a strawberry bread,” people have argued over whether strawberries go best with biscuit or spongecake.

Mark Bittman declared that the bakery-counter strawberry shortcake “is children’s food, more akin to Twinkies than to the real thing.” He then offered the recipe for a quick, easy biscuit, advising, “the more butter you use, the more crumbly (and delicious).” Melissa Clark prefers crumbly cookies with her strawberries.

One must suspect there’s probably a good reason that a recipe in the newspaper of record for strawberries atop cornmeal biscuits directs the cook to macerate those berries in kirsch before putting them on those cornbread biscuits.

The New York Times seems intent on variety, offering a recipe for strawberry shortcake with a lemon-pepper sauce, along with the advice that if you have the choice between mushy, homely but juicy berries, pick those over firm, pretty and less-juicy ones. And if you can’t find good strawberries, substitute apricots, peaches, nectarines or plums. Or drop the shortcake plan and make a rhubarb compote.

That mushy versus firm is a key observation. Fruits like pears may be much the same as they were 50 or 100 years ago, but strawberries have been radically transformed by industrial agriculture. Dana Goodyear’s 2017 New Yorker article, “How Driscoll’s Reinvented the Strawberry,” with the subtitle “The berry behemoth turned produce into a beauty contest and won,” explains how this happened.

Using a comparison with a Silicon Valley neighbor, the Driscoll’s president explained the company’s relentless focus on appearance. “We make the inventions, they assemble it, and then we market it, so it’s not that dissimilar from Apple using someone else to do the manufacturing but they’ve made the invention and marketed the end product.”

In 2017, Driscoll’s controlled roughly one-third of the total $6 billion U.S. berry market.

Although Driscoll’s is not mentioned in “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World” by Malcolm Harris, the book’s abundance of very clever, greedy megalomaniacs is must-reading for anyone who cares about the history of the products that have changed how we do everything, including how we eat.

For those interested in size, in 1975, a 5,700-pound shortcake serving more than 16,000 people brought Lebanon, Oregon, the title of World’s Largest Shortcake. But records are made to be broken. In 2011, volunteers in Pasadena, Texas, began a six-hour marathon of berry prep of 1,200 pounds of berries—to produce the world’s largest strawberry shortcake, measuring 1,905-square-feet. But in a sad sign of the times nationwide, the strawberry fields in Pasadena, Texas, originally celebrated in the town’s 1974 Strawberry Festival as the “Strawberry Capitol of the South,” were gone by 2011. Since then, all of the berries at the festival have been trucked in from a produce company.

Plant City, Fla., and the University of Maryland have also produced “World’s Largest” strawberry shortcakes. The Guinness World Record website lists the Municipality of La Trinidad in the Philippines as the record holder for a 21,213.40-pound cake that was whipped up in 2004.

Sad to say, Charlotters are too late for the annual strawberry festival in Lebanon, Oregon. Held the first weekend in June, this fete started in 1909 and continues as “a chance to bring our community together and to celebrate with pride all of Lebanon’s beauty and friendliness.”

Newspaper deadlines are difficult for volunteer cooks at the Charlotte Senior Center. As we’re going to press, Monday Munch menus are undecided for June 19 and 26 but come on in: You’re sure to find tasty meals and good conversation, a community coming together to celebrate beauty and friendliness — all year round. But we doubt that you’ll experience what Damon Runyon described: “She has a laugh so hearty it knocks the whipped cream off an order of strawberry shortcake on a table 50 feet away.”

Here are The Beatles with “Strawberry Fields Forever“.

Age Well Meal Pickup
Thursday, June 22, 10-11 a.m.
Italian chicken breast, duck sauce, rice & vegetables, broccoli florets, wheat bread, strawberry shortcake with cream and milk.

Age Well Meal Pickup
Thursday, June 29, 10-11 a.m.
Beef stroganoff with mushroom sauce, rotini noodles, Brussels sprouts, wheat roll, blueberry crisp and milk. Suggested Age Well donation  of $5 is not required to receive a meal. Pay what you can, when you can. Registration for the meal is required by the prior Monday.