Strawberry Fields: The Four Billion Dollar Berry

Photo © ArtRachen01

Sweet and tart, red and festive, strawberries are basically a holiday on a plate. We love our strawberries—in shortcake, cheesecake, pie, ice cream, toppings, jam, dipped in confectioners’ sugar, coated in chocolate, with Champagne, or just eating out of hand, standing over the sink. 

Southern California produces 24 percent of the total California strawberry crop, which accounts for 91 percent of all the strawberries in the United States, so it is no surprise that the world’s leading strawberry scientists are in California. The strawberry breeding program began in the 1920s at UC Berkeley, then moved to UC Davis in 1952, where it remains today. The name you are most likely to see on a strawberry clamshell is Driscoll—the fourth-generation family, based in Watsonville, is the leading strawberry producer in the state. Of the six towns in the United States named Strawberry, half are in California: in El Dorado, Marin, and Tuolumne counties. Strawberry is one of the top three ice cream flavors in California. 

It is also no surprise that the specialty doughnut in the shop that was voted one of the best in Los Angeles is super-sized, glazed, and overflowing with strawberries. On Historic Route 66 in Glendora, for more than forty years, 24/7, The Donut Man has been churning out donuts. The Donut Man is Jim Nakano, a Japanese-American U.S. Navy veteran who spent three years of his childhood in a detention camp during World War II. The infamous doughnut is split, stuffed with fresh, glistening strawberries, and must be approached with a knife and fork. 

At Donut Friend­—a vegan doughnut joint in Highland Park—their Strawberrylab, filled with whipped cream, fresh strawberries, and topped with chocolate glaze, is their most popular as well.

Strawberries contribute $4 billion to the economy of Southern California: $1 billion from the growers; $3 billion from cooling, packaging, shipping, and everything else needed to process the berries and get them to market. In 2014, California exported $446 million worth of berries; $40 million of which departed through LAX.

Many of those berries will show up in strawberry shortcake, a favorite American dessert, especially for the Fourth of July. Recipes for strawberry shortcake—just an enriched baking powder biscuit—go back at least to the 1870s, but did not contain sugar back then. In 1933, when General Mills produced its 25-cent cookbook for Bisquick, its 1931 invention, the first recipe was for strawberry shortcake. The cookbook—a 33-page pamphlet—is Betty Crocker’s 101 Delicious Bisquick Creations: As Made and Served by Well-Known Gracious Hostesses; Famous Chefs; Distinguished Epicures and Smart Luminaries of Movieland. In a moment of pure marketing genius, General Mills married America’s culinary identity to Mary Pickford, who, in her heyday, was known as America’s Sweetheart and “Blondielocks.” Pickford was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and also of United Artists, along with mega industry names Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks. Audiences loved little Mary in silent movies such as Pollyana and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; and she loved raking in $250,000 per picture—nearly a century ago.

Mary Pickford’s strawberry shortcake recipe was made of only three ingredients: 2 cups Bisquick, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 3/4 cup cream. Combine ingredients, roll, cut, and bake at 450°F for 12 minutes. Makes 6 to 8.

You can eat your fill of strawberry shortcake, strawberry funnel cake, and strawberry tamales, nachos, chimichangas, and more at the 35th Anniversary California Strawberry Festival on Saturday and Sunday, May 19 and 20, in Oxnard.


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