by Rachel Pick.
A few weeks ago, I opened a carton of strawberries and plucked one out that was approaching the size of a lacrosse ball. Aesthetically, it seemed perfect—firm all over, and blushing scarlet right up to its dainty ring of leaves—but biting into it brought only a sense of disappointment and betrayal. There was no sweetness, no flavor that could be identified as “strawberry”; it just tasted like sour water.
There is a neat little twinge of uncanniness that comes with moments like these, where your taste expectations are so swiftly subverted, but the novelty of that experience was not enough to make up for the whole quart of those oversized, flavorless duds. I am just going to say it, because someone really ought to: the increasing size of supermarket strawberries in recent years correlates very strongly with a decreasing quality of flavor. The rent is too damn high, the weed is too damn strong, and now the strawberries are too damn big.
It’s something beyond a cliche to note that Americans in particular like everything to be big. Cars, movies, cheeseburgers, breasts: the masses clamor for products ever-larger and over-the-top. It’s not even a funny point to make anymore, especially not when you consider that some SUVs have blind spots so big you could mow down a child without ever seeing them in front of you. I humbly submit that some things are meant to be small, and that one of those things is the strawberry.
I do not know anything about agricultural science, nor will I pretend to, so I can’t know for sure if the loss of flavor is tied to the gain of mass. It is merely a strong hunch. I also suspect that larger strawberries are cheaper to produce, as it requires less labor to pick enough berries to fill each carton. This is another topic I am not qualified to discuss. All I know for sure is that things are not supposed to be this way.
There is something so visually appealing about the strawberry, between its zaftig shape, slatternly color, and frilly little hat. But all that sweet, shy charm hinges on the object itself being bite-sized enough that you could imagine the woodland creatures from the Redwall series carrying them overhead. Nowadays, the bulky monstrosities you are likely to find in your grocery store resemble disembodied tongues or excised tumors more than anything else.
Last summer, I went to visit my parents where they live in upstate New York, and my mom and I woke up early one morning to drive to a nearby farm where you can pick your own strawberries. We talked and laughed, enjoying the satisfaction of finding perfect little berries hidden in the bushes, surrounded by the smell of the earth around us and the drifting snatches of conversation from other people busy at the same task. Later in the visit, I quartered a bunch of those berries, lightly macerated them, and used them to top a pavlova. The resulting dessert was one of the best things I have ever made, and those strawberries were the star, so red they cast a gemlike glow from atop their mountain of cream and meringue—delicious, fragrant, tiny, and perfect. That, I think, is what a strawberry should be. The world is a cold and harsh place. Let’s allow some things to remain tiny and sweet.