Strawberry Statement

Verbal and pictorial hosannas to the strawberry have been rolling in for eons. In 1795 gentleman farmer, founding father, and future two-dollar-bill poster boy Thomas Jefferson, noted for raising strawberries on his Virginia plantation, wrote to his chum James Monroe that, in Jefferson's not-so-humble opinion, the plant was one of the few items that especially enriched the United States. And while the fruit decorates countless illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages, figures prominently in a peck of paintings of the Madonna and Child by medieval European miniaturists, and populates numerous botanical studies over the centuries, it finds its most memorable, if bizarre, depiction in the large central panel of Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1500), wherein naked multitudes hoist, tote, adore, and cavort provocatively with gargantuan, voluptuous strawberries.

Very likely attendees to the three-day Strawberry Folk Festival in the Redland will be discouraged from engaging in that last-named activity, but they still can indulge in a more conventional strawberry-related act, namely consuming them -- in the form of shortcakes, milkshakes, ice cream, tarts, and South Miami-Dade's initial wave of just-off-the-vine, in pint or quart boxes.

Strawberries didn't establish an agricultural foothold in South Florida until the Sixties. They first thrived in the northern part of the state during the second half of the Nineteenth Century, when they were shipped to Northeastern cities during the winter, selling for 50 cents to $1 per quart. With the introduction of refrigerated railroad cars in the late 1890s, growing began to flourish in central Florida, putting down roots in Plant City, east of Tampa. The industry has since shifted to South Miami-Dade, and the season seriously kicks into gear now.

In addition to the edibles, this year's fest features storyteller and balladeer Dan Keding, African-American griot and folk musician Bobby Norfolk, members of the Miami Storytelling Guild, and other raconteurs, folksingers, and folk dancers, plus folk and craft artists demonstrating everything from quilting to candlemaking to soapmaking. The event begins with a barbecue dinner -- grilled strawberries? -- and concert under the stars Friday.

Meanwhile festivalgoers might consider the potential medicinal benefits of the strawberry. Englishman William Langham certainly did. In his 1579 book Garden of Health, he recommended the strawberry for anything that ails you, including "bladder griefs, to clean blood, help broken bones, shortness and stink of breath, deformed face, hot fevers, gum griefs, mouth, sciatica, scabs, stomach ache, stone, sweating, teethache, thirst, throat, ill voices, urine stops, women's griefs, and wounds." Deformed face? Well, it couldn't hurt.

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Michael Yockel