Thursday, April 22, 2021

Strawberries in Arkansas - Ponderings and 11 Recipes for Strawberry Pie.

The first fulfilled promise of an Arkansas spring is the bright, tart bite of strawberries. Even when frost complicates our willy-nilly vernal awakening season, the promise of the sweet, sumptuous berries brings even the most deeply hibernated food lover out from under coats and blankets to rejoice in the beginnings of a beautiful, bountiful Natural State harvest.

Strawberry picking in McRae, 1890 (ArGenWeb.Net)

Our roots with the berries run deep.  While strawberries can be grown these days in every U.S. state in some manner or another, Arkansas's four season status meant the berries could be planted in March for a late April through June harvest without extraordinary effort.

A family poses for a photo while processing strawberries at a Bald Knob farm.

They're documented back to the 19th century, where they were a popular garden crop in most Arkansas counties. The coming of the railroad meant new markets beyond the wagon radius of any farm for distributing them while they were still fresh.

Strawberries on wagons in Judsonia in 1918. (photo from Betty Davidson via Pinterest)

Strawberry cultivation by the end of the 19th century was all over Arkansas, with masses produced each year in White, Searcy and Lonoke Counties becoming well-known. Fayetteville, McRae, Judsonia, Bald Knob, Marshall... all had a claim on the famed berries early on.

The short farm-to-fork lines and lack of proper refrigeration meant berries were quickly served when fresh. For those berries past the point of immediate consumption, home cooks put them on heat, added sugar and either pectin or lemon juice, and made jam - not a far cry from cooks of Renaissance Europe, who preserved them in a sugar syrup. 

The front and pack of an informational card by the Arkansas Agriculture Department shared at the 1940 St. Louis World Exposition.

Jams kept the flavor of strawberries year-round for adding to biscuits, cakes and pies and tarts or even just to lump onto a slice of bread.

Workers pick strawberries in a Fayetteville-era field, 1930s. (

Once refrigeration became available, freezing strawberries became another beloved method. You can indeed individually freeze strawberries on cookie sheets and then shake them into a ziptop bag for later use, but the berries lose their perfect crunch of freshness.

Women processing strawberries in Judsonia (National Geographic Magazine, date unknown)

Perhaps this is why, after the 1966 introduction by Birds Eye Foods of Cool Whip topping, a pairing of both use and flavor was made. Strawberries, long since known to be absolutely delectable served with or even in cream, were the defacto go-to fruit to be topped with Cool Whip. And, once the confection was gone, the plastic tubs became a popular way to store quickly preserved strawberries in the refrigerator - with no cooking required. Home cooks would use just the fresh strawberries and a cup of confectioner's sugar to make the substance - removing the caps from the berries and then slicing them, dropping the slices by layers in the tubs and lightly dusting with the sugar before layering more in. The resultant concoction was fresh berry slices in a syrup made from the sugar pulling out moisture to become the drippy topping we have long found delectable on sweet biscuits or shortcakes.

Fresh strawberries from Salt Box Farm in Benton, April 2021 (Grav Weldon)

Indeed, the simple preservation has given way to four generations of Arkansawyers enjoying their berries in this fashion, even spread further to yellow cakes or biscuits with cream. 

A woman picks strawberries in a field at Salt Box Farm in Benton. (Grav Weldon)

The love of strawberries has permeated our Arkansas food culture. Several of our most beloved restaurants celebrate the seasonality of our locally produced produce with strawberry shortcakes of various renown. From the crispy cookie-like shortbreads under fresh strawberries and cream at the Bulldog Restaurant in Bald Knob to the spongy accompaniment of shortbread at Little Rock's famed Trio's with its delectable saucy berry presentation, to the more biscuity version at Brave New Restaurant in Little Rock and One Eleven at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, the short run of berries offers a wake-up for taste buds tired of winter's starchy and meaty standards.

Grav Weldon's strawberry jam on Kat Robinson's drop biscuits. (Kat Robinson)

Whence not in season, those jars of put-back strawberry jams enhance biscuits and scones and all sorts of bready delights, sometimes stirred into a quick sweet bread or spread between layers of fresh, hot cake with cold whipped cream. My partner, Grav, is a wizard at this, sometimes adding in Arkansas peaches or blackberries to the pot bubbling happily away on the stove when he's in the middle of canning season.

A fresh strawberry pie at Daisy's Lunchbox in Searcy.

Of course, fresh and preserved strawberries both have a delectable place in Arkansas's multitude of pies. As I've researched my upcoming cookbooks featuring Arkansas church and community cookbook recipes, I've found a delightful selection of different pies to share featuring our spring harvest. Here are a few you might enjoy. Click to enlargen.

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