Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.
In sixth grade, I was shocked when my science teacher, Mr. Quinnell, referred to an apple as “a ripened ovary.” Sex organs were exotic and scary. Fruit was humdrum. I always accepted the existence of fruit as a less titillating form of sugar, the type parents press upon their sweet-freak children. I did not love fruit. I was nauseated by the salting of cantaloupe and ate far too many slightly unripe bananas because it was easier to choke them down than to fight with my mother.
So how, my 12-year-old self wondered, could an apple be as stunningly generative and evocative as an ovary?
Because it contains seeds and seeds are like eggs. Okay. I got it; I remember the concept to this day. Score one for Mr. Quinnell, intrepid guide to adolescent know-it-alls.
Still, it took me many years to see that there was an impressive seduction factor to fruit. It took drawing and painting fruit. It took growing fruit.
When I read John Seabrook’s profile of David Karp not quite a decade ago in the New Yorker, I tried to imagine a life organized by the pursuit of perfect fruit.
Karp, also known as the “Fruit Detective,” swapped Wall Street for the orchards of southern California and heroin addiction for a life spent sampling bits and pieces of hundreds of harvests, a point Seabrook makes elegantly in his essay. Karp was the one who convinced New York fruit merchants to take a chance on the white peach; he beat the path of dragon fruit to our front doors. We have him to thank for our slightly greater fruit literacy.
Elsewhere in the 2002 article, Seabrook writes, “Although the United States is the most ethnically diverse country on earth, that diversity is not reflected in the fruit stocked by the average supermarket. The mango, which is one of the most popular fruits worldwide, is not among the top ten American fruits (which are, in descending order, bananas, apples, watermelons, oranges, cantaloupes, grapes, grapefruit, strawberries, peaches, and pears).”
The list has changed little in eight years, though pineapple and papaya have worked their way into the top 10, and people are a lot more pro-berry than they used to be (antioxidants, anyone?). Watermelon, cantaloupe, and oranges have slipped off the list. (Just not enough salt in the world to create the illusion of flavor in a bad melon, but I have no flippant theory about the disappearance of oranges.) As you have undoubtedly noted, mangoes had yet to crack the top 10 as of 2009.
Karp still writes for the Los Angeles Times and other venues, and he is still committed to publicizing the work of small-scale growers, a laudable passion; he was ahead of the curve on that one, too.
In 30 years, I too have developed fruit passions. I like melons (ripe and still warm from the patch) and cranberries (delicious microwaved with maple syrup). From late June to October, I plan my weekends around fruit-picking (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples, and cranberries).
As you may already know, my husband plants fruit trees; over the past decade, he has planted damn near three dozen “fruiters,” including apple, cherry, pear, apricot, peach, plum, and quince trees. (Sadly, the peach and apricot died.) At least once a month, we walk through the burgeoning orchard, sizing up the trees. When they’re flowering, you wonder if they’ll be pollinated; when they set fruit, you wonder if bugs or squirrels or birds will get them; if you harvest the fruit, you start wondering how hard the next winter will be. Lather, rinse, repeat.
A couple of years ago, I accidentally left an apple tree exposed to deer and drove home bawling because I knew how much work had gone into getting that sapling to flourish (the tree survived, albeit with a less-than-platonic central leader). Almost 10 years of drought have necessitated hand watering, as our farm lacks running water. I retain an unpleasant memory of a five-gallon pail sloshing with pondwater, its weight pulling at my aching tendons.
I don’t see myself as a pursuer of perfect fruit. Really, I like everything we grow. There’s something about all the years of watching and waiting that makes the harvest nearly ecstatic.
This year the sour pie cherries were awesome — I got a whole pie’s worth. I have stowed a few gallons of local strawberries in the freezer. Blueberries have just started to come on.
A teacher lectures his class about ripened ovaries, a man swaps heroin addiction for stone-fruit appreciation, a nation slowly warms to the mango. And an easily shocked sixth-grader helps tend a small orchard. Such are the ingredients of a successful fruit conversion.
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