Author’s program note. This is a story about a fruit so rich that once you start thinking about it you cannot rest until you are eating some… popping them into your mouth as fast as you can, crushing them… letting the richness of its sweet, sweet juice drip down your chin… glad to have all you can eat… joyfully careless about what you waste… for there will always be strawberries enough for you… you are absolutely sure of that!
But as Deana Carter knows, the lush abundance of strawberries is not unlimited… and so she twangs her tale of high summer, desire, a taste so sweet it maddens you and never satiates… producing a wine you can never get enough of… a strawberry wine… a wine that you can never forget… though sometimes you wish you’d never come to know.
And so, I have selected for today’s occasional music “Strawberry Wine” by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, released in August, 1996. Nashville record companies found the song overly long, controversial, and not memorable enough. But when Carter sang her heart out about the summer, the boy… the strawberries and their wine… the record won Song of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. Go now to any search engine and listen to it. You’ll find yourself remembering… you’ll find yourself craving… you’ll want their taste again… the berries always see to that…. for they are an imperious fruit.
Her Majesty’s strawberry.
On a picture perfect summer day one August I was in Scotland, in the Highlands, at Balmoral… a country castle conceived by Prince Albert, the beautiful German prince loved obsessively by Queen Victoria. For an American used to the White House with its layer after layer of security, Balmoral comes as a rather unnerving shock. “Security” consisted of a single guard, unobtrusive, reading a newspaper. There might be, there must be more… but that’s all I ever saw. He barely looked at us.. smiled… and waved. Thus does Her Britannic Majesty tell you she is beloved of the people and doesn’t need a legion of centurions to protect her… unlike the president of the Great Republic who always needs more… and more.
And so in due course, my friend and I found ourselves in the magnificent park, expansive, serene, as lovely a place as Earth provides. And in the park I found a kitchen garden… the Queen’s garden… and in this garden I saw a strawberry, huge, perfectly ripe, ready to be eaten. And so I reached down to pluck it and enjoy… whereupon I felt a strong hand pulling me up and heard my friend’s voice, no longer amiable, but commanding, imperative, stentorian: “Do not touch that strawberry…. that is the Queen’s berry!” And I realized what being a subject of the Windsors meant, whilst I was the child of revolution and lese majeste/. And so the uneaten berry remained… for the delectation of the Queen.
Even dukes get only leaves.
I was crushed but as my friend was driving I had to give way, and gracefully, too – or else.
Then I had a thought that cheered me up. Even the grandest members of the nobility couldn’t eat of the Royal fruit with impunity. They had to make do with the strawberries’ leaves. And no, I am not making this up. A duke’s coronet proves my point. When a man becomes a duke (and there are only 24 such people in the entire realm of Great Britain) he is entitled to a silver-gilt circlet called a coronet. It features eight strawberry leaves — not one more and never a single one less. Thus does the sovereign elevate ambitious members of the aristocracy… and keep her strawberries for herself.
Other gentlemen of high rank and title are also entitled to strawberry leaves on their coronets. And here there is a most curious conundrum: marquesses who rank just below dukes in the peerage of the realm are entitled to four strawberry leaves… but earls, who rank below marquesses, get eight. What can this mean? For peers, as you may imagine, are protocol mad… and scrutinize their inferiors for any indication that they are claiming rank and privilege to which they are not strictly entitled. You can be sure there’s some fiddle going on here… but if the marquesses are in a pet of high indignation, they have but to look far down at the viscounts and barons who have not a single strawberry leaf between them… and that’s just the way these marquesses mean to keep it — “Honi soit qui mal y pense.”.
Strawberry leaves mean strawberry tea.
Fortunately, there is more you can do with your strawberry leaves than wait for the Queen to make you a duke. That, after all, could be a long time coming since the last non-royal duke was his grace of Westminster, in 1874. It’s true that her present majesty when a young woman offered to make Sir Winston Churchill duke of London… but he declined and there the matter rests, perhaps forever.
And you’ll agree, this situation could be more than irritating for those who every morning see in their looking glasses, not milord this or the right honorable that but… His Grace the Duke of… resplendent in ermine and strawberry leaves.
These men, well bred for hundreds of years, offer the correct aquiline features, the correct pedigree, with generations of the right fathers and acquiescing mothers, masters of every arcane procedure, the right words and impeccable cravat, these men I tell you are smoldering with rage, aggravation, frustration, worthies all marooned in the wrong time. For them, each of them only the calming propensities of strawberry leaf tea will do… poured in a fragile cup of Minton, delivered by Nannie who always knows just what to do. “Have some more sugar, ducks. There, there, it’ll be all right.”
And so does Nanny, who loves you best, goes out with wicker basket on her arm, to the places she knows well, where the fresh wild strawberries grow or the sweet woodland berries. Take 1 tablespoon of dried rose petals, 1/2 teaspoon of yarrow, 1 teaspoon of strawberry leaves, a pinch of mint or blackberry leaves. Add 1 cup of boiling water and allow to steep. Choler cannot long exist in the presence of such determined coziness.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).
It was perhaps in pursuit of these ingredients that Emily Dickinson, mistress of opaque language, stepped out, “Over the fence” …
“Over the fence — Strawberries — grow — Over the fence — I could climb — if I tried, I know — Berries are nice.
But — if I strained my Apron — God, would certainly scold! Oh, dear, — I guess if He were a
Boy — he’d — climb — if He could!”
So, let’s leave it like that, for as Deana Carter sang, “It’s funny how those memories they last. Like strawberry wine… (when) The hot July moon saw everything” and the strawberries were there, bright and beckoning, just over the fence.