According to one legend, the berry has been a force of nature since the beginning of time.
The Cherokees have a creation myth that connects human harmony and the configuration of heaven and Earth to the sight of a single strawberry. The cosmic details are murky. But the culinary message is clear. Abbreviated, it goes like this:
First Man and First Woman (think Cherokee Adam and Eve) have a blowout argument, after which First Woman proclaims: “You are lazy and pay no attention to me. I am going to find another place to live.” With that, she harrumphs off with that indignant, power-walker briskness achieved only by angry women.
First Man feels remorse. He sets off to apologize, but can’t catch up. His legs are no match for her will. Desperate, he beseeches the Creator: “Please, slow her down so I can tell her how much I love her.”
Moved by First Man’s anguish, the Creator sets temptations in First Woman’s path. He tries gooseberries. He tries huckleberries. He tries blackberries. But First Woman pays them no attention, and proceeds at her frantic clip.
Finally, the Creator turns to his own garden and plucks the berry of the Heavens. He sets Earth’s first strawberry plant at First Woman’s feet. Miraculously, it blooms and bears fruit.
First Woman stops dead in her tracks. She’s smitten by the graceful leaves, the lovely bloom, the heart-shaped fruit. She decides to pause for a single bite.
As she picks the first berry, more plants sprout around her. She tastes one strawberry. Then another, and another. As she plucks and feasts, her anger melts away.
She unpacks a basket she brought for her journey, and as she fills it with shiny red fruit, she’s filled with longing for her husband. When the basket will hold no more, First Woman pivots and heads for home, as fast as she had run away.
Still in hot pursuit, First Man looks up and sees First Woman coming toward him. She’s smiling and singing again. His heart soars. He tries to tell her how much he missed her, but she puts her hand to his lips, and places a strawberry in his mouth.
Silently, he thanks the Creator for a gift with the power to bring First Woman back. First Woman takes First Man’s hand and leads him home, feeding him berries all the way.
The berry in history
Admittedly, it’s a fanciful myth. But it’s difficult to overstate humankind’s long-standing passion for the strawberry. European folklore holds that if two people share a double berry, they’re bound to fall in love. Medieval stonemasons carved strawberries on cathedrals to symbolize perfection. In provincial France, newlyweds were fed a breakfast of strawberry soup.
And even today, when berries grown who-knows-where are available in the dead of winter — the sight of the first local berries, those berries that taste perfectly sweet, the way berries are supposed to taste — still have the power to stop us in our tracks. We pick up a quart or two or three. We give thanks and head home smiling, thinking sweet thoughts about how we might enjoy them and who we’d like to feed.
Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis ad writer who also writes about food, culture and life.