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Credit: C. Bertelsen

Strawberries, the Quintessential British Delicacy of the American South

They say that behind every recipe lurks a story. And that’s indeed true in the case of strawberries and the American South, where there’s a story, a big one.

You see, Southerners in the United States like to point to strawberry shortcake and claim it as their own. Ditto strawberry pie. But strawberries, All-American perhaps, still come with a long English history behind them. Delve into English cookbooks from the very first time recipe books appeared and you’ll find recipes suspiciously similar to those served both in the antebellum South and today’s South.

All of this suggests — very strongly — that in many, many instances, English/British cooking served as the backbone for much of what is called traditional American cooking, in spite of the much-touted influences of other culinary groups.

The truth is this: bless their hearts, but many food writers tend to make assumptions about how Southern cooking came to be what it is today WITHOUT LOOKING CLOSELY AT ALL OF THE ANTECEDENTS, the cookbooks and the different cultures — not just African — at play, that is, comparing the actual recipes found in the past with what passes as plantation-inspired cooking. Stephen Schmidt attempted to dissect this quandary in his very thorough article — “When Did Southern Begin?” He hints at the disdain shown toward English culinary antecedents when he says, “But [Karen] Hess*, oddly, falls into a trap that popular historians have set. Rarely bothering to study period recipes, the popularizers endlessly repeat the tired wisdom that historical English food was ‘bland and boring.’ “ Hess also fell into the trap of generalizing more than she should have about the origins of recipes found in Southern cookbooks. Schmidt states emphatically that “Randolph does call for cayenne frequently, but so do her northern counterparts, for cayenne was beloved in England: Raffald’s reliance on cayenne in The Experienced English Housekeeper is almost compulsive,” essentially calling into question the assumption that cayenne only entered the pot via the hand of a cook with an African culinary heritage. (See Notes below.)

So, take strawberries, for example, a proper vehicle for examining some of these issues.

Although tiny fraises des bois grew in Europe prior to the discovery of the New World in 1492, it wasn’t until English and French horticulturalists combined these tiny European berries with the bigger, sweeter, redder Fragaria virginiana (scarlet or Virginia strawberry) — indigenous to Virginia and mentioned by William Byrd in his Natural History of Virginia (1737)** — that the modern plum-size strawberry began. And it took another New World strawberry cousin — Fragaria chiloensis (pine or beach strawberry), discovered by Amédée-François Frézier (1682–1773) — to create the modern supermarket strawberry. Native Americans created a type of cornbread mixed with crushed strawberries, too. They also dried them. Thomas Jefferson mentioned strawberries so often in his Garden Book that curators at Monticello surmised that the strawberry ranked as one of Jefferson’s favorite fruits, no small feat in the eighteenth century before the large-scale production of improved varieties. But by 1867, newspapers such as The Prairie Farmer of Chicago carried advertisements for bedding plants.

But way long before all that birds and bees stuff began percolating in English greenhouses, the English took to strawberries like flies to honey. Recipes dating to 1290 suggest this very long history, as does an Oxford English Dictionary entry that claims that the words “Frega, streaberige” appeared in a glossary from the year 1000 C.E. In other words, the strawberry is no Johnny-come-lately to the English table.

One reason for the modern popularity of strawberries rests with a man by the name of Thomas Wolsey, a Catholic Cardinal, deep with Henry VIII. Wolsey’s Hampton Court palace, 20 miles south of London, boasted enormous kitchens and it was there in 1509 that one of his cooks concocted the delicious combination of strawberries and cream, praised years later by Andrew Boorde, author of Fyrst boke of the Introduction of knowledge (ca. 1550). Boorde wrote a few sentences about the strawberry, saying

“Rawe crayme undecocted, eaten with strawberyes or hurtes (whortleberry, billberry) is a rurall mannes blanket. I have knowen such blankettes hath put men in jeoperdy of theyr lyves.”

Up to this point, and beyond, humoural theory ruled the British kitchen. Note again Boorde’s comment: cream “puts men in jeopardy of their lives,” John Russell’s Boke of Nurture (~1460) cautioned against eating cream from cows and goats. Why? Because cream’s cooling nature caused ill health under certain circumstances. Although many people abandoned the humoural theory of medicine and food as ideas from the Enlightenment trickled into the American colonies, its important to recall that cooks knew to avoid certain pairings of food, as Trudy Eden demonstrated in her study of this topic, The Early American Table. And Alfred Crosby, better known for his work on the Columbian Exchange, delved into the topic in his more controversial Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (1986).

What Boorde described is essentially the signature dish now associated with Wimbledon and tennis, a “foolish” dish, as it were.

Or strawberry fool. This strawberry dessert could well be the grandparent to Wimbledon’s strawberries-and-cream and Eton Mess, names that still tickle my funny bone, as do so many English recipe monikers.

So what is a fool, and more specifically, a strawberry fool? Is it, perhaps, an ancestor of strawberry shortcake?

First, the definition: “Fool,” thought by many to be a name possibly (and loosely) based on the French word fouler, to press or trample upon (as in grapes). But it may actually be associated with the more pejorative word for simpleton — “fool ” — frivolous and light, without substance. The earliest versions of this dish seem to have been custards with fruit mixed in. Take Randle Holme’s description in his Academy of Armory (1688): “Foole is a kind of Custard, but more crudely; being made of Cream, Yolks of Eggs, Cinnamon, Mace boiled; and served on Sippets with sliced dates, Sugar, and white and red Comfits, strawed thereon.”

Sippets mean small pieces of bread or toast, and could well be substituted with various bready or cakey items, such as scones or crumpets. Or biscuits … . Or pie pastry … .

Hannah Glasse printed a recipe for gooseberry fool in her 1747 cookbook, The Art of Cookery, incidentally a highly popular cookbook in the American colonies during the eighteenth century.

A deeper look at this concept, fruit mashed and dispersed in a thick creamy medium suggests a fast version of pottage. Or posset even.

A fifteenth-century English cookery book, Harleian MS 279 manuscript (ca. 1435), includes a pottage concocted with strawberries:

.Cxxiij. Strawberye. — Take Strawberys, & waysshe hem in tyme of зere in gode red wyne; þan strayne þorwe a cloþe, & do hem in a potte with gode Almaunde mylke, a-lay it with Amyndoun oþer with þe flowre of Rys, & make it chargeaunt and lat it boyle, and do þer-in Roysonys of coraunce, Safroun, Pepir, Sugregrete plente, pouder Gyngere, Canel, Galyngale; poynte it with Vynegre, & a lytil whyte grece put þer-to; coloure it with Alkenade, & droppe it a-bowte, plante it with þe graynys of Pome-garnad, & þan serue it forth.***

Hints of trifle there, too, and that future all-time Southern favorite — banana pudding as well. Exchange one fruit for another, possibly more exotic, and consumers certainly regarded bananas as exotic in the beginning.

And … strawberry shortcake, the first published recipe possibly appearing in Miss Leslie’s The Lady’s Receipt Book: A Useful Companion for Large or Small Families (1847), although some suggest that the recipe surfaced in 1840s, perhaps first in Michigan. That may be so, but the hints are there that the idea of strawberries with cake could well have existed prior to that; certainly serving strawberries and cream had much longer history.

So the next time someone serves strawberry shortcake, gushing about the ingenuity of cooks in American kitchens, think of England’s green and pleasant land, not the piney woods of South Carolina or the red clay earth of Georgia nor the Piedmont of Virginia.

Strawberry Fool

2 cups fresh or frozen strawberries, pureed (if using fresh, hold back a few and slice them for garnish)

1 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whip the cream until slightly stiff peaks form, then add the sugar and vanilla. Fold the strawberry puree into cream with gentle strokes. Chill fool for a few hours. Dish up into custard cups or other small bowls, and garnish with a few strawberry slices. Serves about 6 people.


*Karen Hess made a name for herself as annotator/interpreter/editor of a number of historical cookbooks. I very strongly question some of Mrs. Hess’s generalizations in her annotations to What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. Look at what she says on pages 80–81: “While the overwhelming basic influence in the various Southern cuisines was English, with strong streaks of French and occasional traces of other kitchens, African aromas were everywhere.” She then points to a few okra recipes in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824) as being proof of a widespread African influence. Note that Mrs. Randolph also included several Spanish recipes in that very same book … . Another generalization of Mrs. Hess’s is this, on page 90 of What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking: “I should note that most of the recipes in all [her emphasis] Southern cookbooks are, in fact, largely recipes gleaned by the writers from African American cooks, their own, and others.” I ask: how can anyone be 100% certain of this fact? Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) was one of the first, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to mention barbecue … .

**Thought by some to have actually been written by John Lawson.

***Peter Brears includes this recipe on pages 27–272 of Cooking and Dining in Medieval England. A translation is as follows: Strawberry. — Take strawberries and wash them in time of year in good red wine; then strain through a cloth, and do them in a pot with good almond milk, mix it with wheat starch or with rice flour, and make it thick and let it boil, and do therein currants, saffron, pepper, sugar great plenty, powdered ginger, cinnamon, galingale; sour it with vinegar, and a little white grease put thereto; color it with Alkanet, and drop it above with pomegranate seeds, and then serve it forth.

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