a guest post by Jennie Youssef
When the term of my Folger fellowship began, I had made some headway in my research for a dissertation chapter on the foodway of strawberries. The strawberry’s symbolic significance in medieval art and early modern literary and dramatic texts has been extensively analyzed. To cite well-known dramatic examples from Shakespeare’s England—in Othello (first staged in 1604), Desdemona’s handkerchief, embroidered with strawberries, serves as a nod to the popularity of a domestic pastime and has also been read as symbolic of her virginity. In Richard III (written between 1592-1594), strawberries again make an appearance, this time as a symbol of good, when Gloucester asks Bishop Ely to fetch him strawberries from his garden and Ely, unaware of the evil plot that has been discussed in his absence, returns with them. A less well-known reference is in James Shirley’s The Example (published in 1637), when Master Confident refers to the “strawberrying” of his wife’s cheeks, alluding to her carnal passions.
The history of the common strawberry—the hybrid form (Fragaria ananassa) that we consume today—is as just as juicy as the fruit itself. Wild strawberries had long been domesticated and cultivated throughout Europe, but in the early 1700s, French engineer and alleged spy, Amédée-François Frézier, sent a handful of specimens of the coastal strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) from Chile to France. In his travelogue, Relation du voyage de la mer du Sud, aux côtes du Chili, du Pérou et de Brésil, fait pendant les années 1712, 1713, et 1714 (1716), the English translation of which is available at the Folger (172- 951q), Frézier writes that he had given the plants to a certain “Monsieur de Jussieu,” likely Bernard de Jussieu, an acclaimed French doctor and botanist. My research has not yet uncovered if it was indeed Jussieu who successfully crossed the Fragaria chiloensis with Fragaria virginiana, a species native to North America, to give us Fragaria ananassa.
My deep dive into the Folger’s digital collections has revealed many references to the strawberry in facets of early modern European culture even before the cultivation of its hybrid species. Take, for instance, this Dutch Protestant caricature circa 1570, which takes a punch at French Catholic fashion.
Folger ART 269830
The ruffs, or goffered frills, at the necks of the man and woman are referred to as “frases,” which is more than likely a Dutch misspelling of the French word for strawberries, “fraises.” Essentially, “fraises” strikes me as a very suitable name for ruffs if we were to imagine them as strawberry leaves and the heads as the fruit. Without delving into a word-for-word translation, both the Dutch and French text in the graphic mock this frilly fashion statement as a foolish and frivolous practice that taints the sanctity of the body, although the Dutch text does not contain any word that even remotely means “strawberry.”
Although for the Dutch Protestants strawberries were a fashion faux-pas that befouled the body, a wide range of English sources show that its consumption was beneficial to the body—so much so that the marvelous qualities of the strawberry plant make their way into this “mery nevv iigge,” printed in 1630, and sung “to the tune of Strawberry leaues make maidens faire.”
Popular ballads aside, numerous English dietaries, herbals, and recipes show a widespread belief that strawberries were good for the body. Andrew Boorde’s 1547 Compendyous regyment or a dyetary of helth, for example, in a section on strawberries writes, that the fruit “be praysed aboue al buryes for they do qualyfye the heate of the lyuer, & dothe ingender good blode eaten with suger.”
Folger MS V.a.364, folio 13v-14r
The directive to eat strawberries with sugar more than likely exists because, according to Galenic principles, raw tart fruits promoted cold and dry humors, which could upset the body. The addition of sugar (hot and moist) could counter the negative effects of raw strawberries, as in this recipe from Certain profitable and well experienced collections for making conserve of fruits, circa 1650:
The recipe’s addition of double the weight of strawberries in sugar points to the extraordinary cold properties of the fruit—that despite the addition of sugar, “Conserue of strawberries” was nevertheless “good against a hoate Lyver, or burning, the stoane and especiallie in the fervent heat of an ague.” Below is another recipe for strawberry preserves circa late 1600s that also calls for a worrisome amount of sugar:
Folger MS V.b.363, p.49-50
As in the above recipe for conserve of strawberries, this receipt book from the late 17th-early 18th century also attests to the medicinal properties of the strawberry for curing the stone. It demands a few extra steps as opposed to the conserve and requires that the resulting, likely very sweet, concoction sits in the sun for “two or three weeks.”
Folger MS V.b.400, p.96
The prevalence of references to the strawberry in European culture—fashion, literature, theatre, music, food, and medicine—calls to my mind the superfood fads of today. Could the argument that the strawberry was the acai berry of the early modern period be made? Whatever the case may be, it is evident that strawberries were of particular relevance in Europe. It is no wonder then, that by the late 18th century, strawberry cultivation had extended beyond the endeavors of Frézier and Jussieu. In a letter from poet and playwright Hanna More to dancer Eva Maria Garrick, More writes that she is sending Garrick what I infer to be a marvelous gift: strawberry plants grown from seeds that More obtained in Russia.
Jennie Youssef is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theatre and Performance at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Her dissertation investigates how early modern foodways revolutionized global food culture and examines the impact of colonially driven exchange of food knowledge on festive practice, religious celebrations, and the reimagination and representation of the self on stage and in society.