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5.1.14

Berries of the Heart

What is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect strawberries.

Gathering strawberries is like the pursuit of love. At first it seems that the best berries are always the ones two steps ahead of you, a row over from you, or in someone else’s basket. But then a splash of scarlet winks at your feet and it’s beckoning just to you.

Strawberries are flirts. They peek out from under those trefoil leaves, half brazen hussy, half coy maiden. Emily Dickinson heard their siren song, and though we often think of her as a pallid, indoor gal, she had tomboy dreams of ruining that white dress in the pursuit of earthly delights:

Over the fence –

Strawberries – grow –

Over the fence –

I could climb – if I tried, I know –

Berries are nice!

But – if I stained my Apron –

God would certainly scold!

Oh, dear, – I guess if He were a Boy –

He’d – climb – if He could!

Jocelyn Filley

Desdemona knew all about the way that strawberries teeter between virtue and vice. Iago tricked Othello into thinking that he and Desdemona had a roll in the hay by producing her lost handkerchief. The square of linen is “spotted” with embroidered strawberries.

Why this detail? Strawberries, Shakespeare knew, were traditionally associated with the snake in the Garden of Eden, as both are seductive denizens of the low-growing grass. And, being Shakespeare, he also knew of the seemingly conflicting tradition of adorning images of the Virgin Mary with strawberries, this time as a symbol of chastity and humility. Alas, for Desdemona, the snake-berry wins out, and the spotted handkerchief leads to bloody downfall. Strawberries do stain terribly.

So in honor of the innocent, the sinful, and the recklessly messy character of the fruit, may I suggest three dishes? The first embodies blamelessness. You’ve collected a trove of berries from your favorite farm stand, and the only moral dilemma is whether to stop the kids from eating them before dessert when you have scarfed an entire quart yourself. This is the classic shortcake: a buttery biscuit, flaky enough to soak up the juices of the berries. As per usual, top them with crystals of sugar and serve with dollops of thick yellow cream from Grey Barn in Chilmark. But this year, tip a few tablespoons of malted milk powder into your dough, to conjure up the wholesome retro pleasures of the shake shack.

For a more adult dessert to be savored as the blue sky darkens over the darker blue of the Vineyard Sound, reach for dusky ingredients. A twist or two from the pepper mill and some vanilla seeds scraped from the pod lend your strawberries a spicy warmth. Well-aged, syrupy balsamic vinegar will draw out the more seductive sting of the berry. You could drizzle it on your macerated berries, but if you really want to intrigue your dinner guest, make the most of that interplay of cool and heat with a curl of homemade balsamic sorbet.

And lastly, something that expresses the joyous tumble of strawberry season, the juicy promise of ripe, warm, early summer days. This is a dish best taken to a beach picnic in Tupperware dug out from the back of your cupboard – but don’t pry open the lid until everyone has gathered around to inhale the concentrated perfume of bruised and sugared berries. Eton mess is an import from another island. England, my homeland, has a long tradition of boarding schools stocked with perpetually hungry and slightly brutalized boys. The “tuck shop” specialty of Eton College is a simple mix of broken meringue, whipped cream, and barely crushed strawberries. It is quick, boisterous, and curiously enough, works better with uniformly dry store-bought meringues than the homemade version. (Save your meringue-making energy for a Pavlova.)

Appropriately enough, the first English schoolboys to turn up on Martha’s Vineyard and the neighboring Elizabeth Islands – Bartholomew Gosnold and John Brereton – were thrilled to find “strawberries red and white, as sweet and much bigger than ours in England.” That was in 1602, but don’t worry – they didn’t polish them all off. When you’re walking through up-Island meadows and chance to look down, you may find yourself among a shy bounty of slim and pointed wild strawberries. Known as wuttáhimneash to the Wampanoags, the name is sometimes translated as “heart berry.” These intense and fragile fruits need no recipe save this: stop, pick, close your eyes, and eat.

The following recipes were originally published with this article:

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