Adventures in Wild Strawberries with Ava Gardner

For years, my father lauded the wild strawberry preserves made by his mother (and my grandmother) Wilma while growing up in western Virginia.  Mouthwateringly delicious, both tart and sweet. Mumm….. As a strawberry and jam lover, I imagined myself stumbling onto a field of these elusive fruits and making my own version.

We grow many fruits by choice in the Whale Tail Orchard, from apples to plums to cherries, but we’re also blessed with a munificence of wild blackberries. I knew we had wild strawberries, too, but I never saw more than one pop up among the creeping charlie and violets. And this one had already rotted, clearly chewed up by a critter.

This year, however, I found an entire patch! They had grown on the edge of what I call The Abandoned Sculpture Garden, the site where J.P. stores the steel frames he used for making his models. Not much bigger than peas, my loot fit within the palm of my hand. They’re beautiful, a deep red not often seen in nature, with the familiar scalloped leaves of cultivated berries. However, when I bit into one, my taste buds did not exactly tingle. It had virtually no flavor. The biggest one carried a little sweetness, but it tasted more like a melon.

A little research revealed that my pickings, which sprouted from yellow flowers, are known as “mock strawberries.” The real berries, the ones of my dad’s childhood, came from white flowers. This was the difference.

I could make jam, I suppose, but it would take ten times the sugar, and the scant flavor didn’t justify the effort. Then I thought of North Carolina native Ava Gardner, the legendary beauty and actress. In The Secret Conversations, based on discussions between writer Peter Evans and Ava in 1986, the famed diva said of herself: “She made movies, she made out, and she made a ******** mess of her life, but she never made jam.”

Aha! Maybe this was why. Maybe this farm girl encountered only mock strawberries. I can only wonder. For my part, I won’t be making movies, and nobody will ever call me a barefoot contessa, so for now I’ll just enjoy the appearance of our berries, and imagine what Wilma’s famed preserves might have tasted like. Knowing Ava, she wouldn’t have settled for anything bland, so I’ll just savor the cultivated berries from the local produce stands. And these are simply sublime. Ava would definitely approve.