Walk into the produce section of any high-end supermarket. Electric green lettuces, fiery-orange yams, red-tipped kale and sienna brown potatoes pop off the shelf. There are Costa Rican pineapples, Nevada onions, Peruvian asparagus, Chilean peaches, Texas tomatoes and shiny red cones with kelly-green leaves in clear plastic containers. A Louisiana boot marks one container; the name Driscoll identifies the other.
The Louisiana strawberries inside are pretty, but not beautiful. The Driscolls, by contrast, are stunning. The pretty berries are from Ponchatoula. A company based in California flew in the Driscoll carton from Mexico. But, side by side, are the berries that different?
Once there was no question that Louisiana strawberries were different. The varieties of Klondyke, Daybreak, Headliner and Tangi — the heritage, or heirloom, strawberries — were smaller, rounder, misshapen, lipstick red, and gushed with juice. "They tasted intensely of the most pure strawberry flavor. Very, very sweet; very, very juicy. Dark, dark red. The real telltale sign was the fragile juiciness where you could barely touch them without your fingers turning red," says Poppy Tooker, founder of Slow Food USA, a national food advocacy organization devoted to preserving cultural cuisine by highlighting the people, tradition, plants and animals associated with food in a particular region. "They didn't look like the big, scary monstrous hybrids that come out of California. It was a different fruit. It was the only strawberry grown in North America that could compare to the Alpine Frais du Bois," Tooker adds, referencing the small, intensely flavored wild strawberries popular with pastry chefs.
"Many of those older varieties were soft and had a good strawberry flavor. They were selected and bred for those flavor components. They do not necessarily have those components in the newer variety," says Charlie Johnson, a horticultre researcher at the LSU AgCenter.
Today the so-called Louisiana strawberry may be grown in state, but it is the same variety grown in California and Florida — genetically, the berries are the same. As this strawberry cultivar becomes ubiquitous around the country, we are losing the unique varieties that once made the state famous. Farmers also are raising "hybrids" or Festival and Camarosa berries developed by the University of Florida and the University of California, respectively. (The term hybrid is confusing because, as biologists note, in Mendelian genetics almost every plant is a hybrid.)
A New Orleans native interviewed for this article asked "Do they even grow strawberries outside of Louisiana?" which in 1930 would have been a fair question. At that time, there were reportedly 30,000 acres of Klondyke strawberries in Tangipahoa Parish. In 2008, there were 395 acres and 89 farmers.
When we contemplate extinction, we generally limit our musings to the zoological — the bald eagle, the polar bear — and not to fruits and vegetables. However, plant species can disappear just like animals — and this loss of biodiversity is a major concern to scientists.
"Over thousands of years as man domesticated plants, we have gotten narrower and narrower with the gene pool, and we have an awareness now that we need to maintain a much wider spectrum of diversity," says Gary Kinard, a research plant pathologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service's National Germplasm Resources Laboratory. Biodiversity, or the variation of life within an ecosystem, is the result of years of natural selection and is nature's way of protecting animals from mass starvation. The death and destruction caused by the Irish potato famine of the 19th century, for instance, was particularly severe because farmers had planted a single potato variety, which when attacked, responded the same way to disease.
The USDA's National Germplasm Resources Laboratory helps to offset loss of biodiversity by maintaining various fruits and vegetables — preserving a diverse gene pool — and making these seeds, cuttings and plant roots available to scientists and researchers. To foster awareness of these issues, Slow Food USA, developed the "Ark of Taste," a catalog of some 200 foods in danger of extinction. The group has put the Louisiana Heritage Strawberry on this list. While some farmers scattered around the Northshore may grow the heritage berries on a small scale, no one is selling the fruit, much less advertising their patches to strawberry reporters.
The now close-to-extinct Louisiana heritage berries originated when Italian farmers began to grow strawberries on the Northshore in the late 1800s. In 1901, Robert L. Cloud, a strawberry farmer in Independence, La., released the Klondyke, a more durable shipping variety. The Klondyke was the standard berry in the United States for more than 30 years and put Louisiana on the strawberry map.
The heritage berries began to disappear in the 1960s, with the proliferation of strawberry diseases and modernization of the American food distribution system. For farmers, the heritage berries were harder to grow because they were susceptible to crown-rot disease, which appeared after the plants sprouted. The season for heritage berries was also shorter — March to May — resulting in a lower yield and lower profit for farmers. The softer, juicier berries rotted more quickly and the very qualities that made the fruits appealing ultimately led to their demise. Farmers answered by growing bigger, tougher varieties that started in northern climates like Canada and were less prone to disease.
"If anyone has [the heritage berries], it is a few old-timers who have kept a few of the berries going," says Regina Bracy, a professor of horticulture and research coordinator at the LSU AgCenter's Hammond Research Center. LSU is maintaining between five and 10 of the heritage berry plants, though they do not have enough for distribution. Several years ago, Henry Amato, a strawberry farmer in Independence, successfully raised the fruit from LSU plant stock, but Katrina wiped out his crops. Those interested in personally propagating the plants can order heritage berry sources from the National Plant Germplasm System, a public and private cooperative devoted to maintaining plant diversity.
Tougher, disease resistant berries also were attractive to a changing American food system that was moving toward national chains like Safeway and Walmart. The hybrids are bigger, have a longer growing season, produce greater yields and are less likely to bruise in transit.
"By using different plant types and a broader growing season, we can bring forward a berry that the consumer wants: a juicy, sweet, colorful, nice textured berry," says Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Strawberry Marketing Board.
Some see the yearning as just nostalgia. "We have some [strawberries] that are a little better, tastier," says Eric Marrow, a farmer in Ponchatoula, the Northshore town that holds the region's annual Strawberry Festival. "Everyone remembers [berries in their] childhood as something special, but in reality they probably wouldn't taste as good as the berries today."
But it may be the consumer, not the grower, who is really at fault, says Liz Williams, director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. "We are to blame as much as anybody else. It is not like somebody took it away from us. We chose something."
These changes in the food system also can reduce biodiversity. "[Farmers] are going to limit the varieties they grow, because they want to count on [the berries] being transported a great distance, that it ships well — which means we wind up with a narrower scope of what's available," explains Richard McCarthy, executive director of Market Umbrella, a New Orleans organization that runs the Crescent City Farmers Markets. Unlike other heirloom produce, such as tomatoes, heritage strawberries are not available to consumers.
The rise of monocultures — when the same type of crop is grown across the country — is seen in foods like corn, tomatoes and bananas. By planting the same variety, famers can raise disease-resistant crops and help prevent mass blight, as well as protect profits. This standardization means lots of cheap food. "I believe that diversity is good, theoretically, although it may not be useful in terms of feeding thousands of people," Williams says. "If I had to worry about whether or not we had those little strawberries or hungry people, I would rather not have hungry people."
Back to the supermarket. Take one berry out of each of the plastic containers. The Driscoll berries are waxy, ruby-red, tapered cones that smell like grass. Seeds cover the surface of the berries. The Louisiana strawberries are white around the crown and pointier, with bumps, which make some look like witches' noses. They exude a sweet strawberry smell. "The current varieties, like the Festivals, have the tell-tale marks of some genetic work," Tooker says. "They tend to be uniformly shaped and uniformly sized."
Bite into the Driscoll. It is mushy, watery, with the texture of a banana. The core is light pink as if it only ripened on the skin. "Like so much industrialized food, it is really more about size and appearance," Tooker says. "Unfortunately, when it comes to strawberries, people have totally come to believe that size matters — and it shouldn't."
The Louisiana berries are crisp, sweet and tart, with a more intense strawberry taste. They are much better than the Driscoll berries, but they are not glorious. Despite genetic modifications, neither of these berries lives up to a strawberry ideal, but the Louisiana berries are still better.
Some argue that as long as a berry is grown in Louisiana soil, it is unique, even if it is genetically no different than its Florida and California cousins. Farmers explain that a dry climate with warm days and nights and good sources of clean water — what the French call terroir — all impact berry taste. "The uniqueness of the flavor comes from the soil conditions where they are grown," Strain says. "You don't get anything better than a locally grown strawberry."
Tooker agrees, "Anything that is going to be grown, picked, riper, grown closer, and gotten into your hands quicker, is going to always be superior," she says. "That is probably the primary difference between the taste of the Driscolls and the taste of the Louisiana berries."
Like state officials and fishermen who are attempting to rebrand Gulf shrimp, the Louisiana Strawberry and Marketing Board is promoting the Louisiana strawberry through stamps, labels and seals. "We are going to certify that they are a locally grown, locally certified product, with inspections, quality controls and lots of standards," Strain says. Facilitating a niche market based on the berries' intrinsic value differences like taste, size and flavor might be easier than selling Louisiana berries as unique on the basis of terroir alone. Even wine lovers who know soil conditions and microclimates affect the taste of wine will argue that a Pinot Noir grape will never be a Cabernet grape, just like a Festival strawberry will never be a heritage strawberry.
Food advocates hope to raise money to preserve the heritage strawberries. "We are trying to figure out how to get the intellectual capital interested in intervening at the point of production to start growing the old varieties," McCarthy says. Researchers at LSU AgCenter also plan to propagate more berries this year and revive the old varieties.
Some farmers would welcome the opportunity to plant the heritage berries. "If y'all can find enough plant stock, that would be great. I would plant more for the market," says Nick Usner, a Crescent City Farmers Market vendor who has grown a small patch of heritage berries.
"They work," says Isabella Mendez, another farmer/vendor. "A lot of people like them, and they are still asking about them." Mendez grew the Tangi berry three years ago and says, "If I could find the plant, I'd do it again."
The most delicate things are often the most vulnerable but also the most worthy of being preserved. When we compare the heritage strawberries, the Louisiana hybrids and the imported hybrids, we are actually asking ourselves how much we value quality and taste.
"The berries are one of our Louisiana links that makes us who we are," Tooker says. "And with standardization of flavor, and standardization of food, as food is the thing that makes us all human, it ties us together no matter what race, religion or nationality we are.
"Every little identifier that is chipped away from us reduces the human condition."