In The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner travels around the world searching for the most wondrous, delicious, and exotic fruits. His journey brings him face-to-face with the power of fruit nuclear technology traded for mangoes, governments overthrown for bananas, cutting-edge genetically engineered strawberries, and more.
He discovers why the selection of fruits available to us at grocery stores is so painfully limited and he meets a wild cast of people simply obsessed with fruit eating it, growing it, breeding it, seeking it, worshipping it.But the true stars are the fruits themselves from the almost pornographic coco-de-mer to the almost supernatural miracle fruit to the almost grotesque durian, from the ice cream bean to the mangosteen and the cloudberry to the peanut-butter fruit, it's a gigantic understatement when Gollner writes: "Willy Wonka's got nothing on Mother Nature."
Elan Mastai: For me, probably like for most people, I'm happy fruit is good for me but really it's all about the taste. Your descriptions of the flavours of the many strange and surprising fruits you discover are intoxicating, almost agonizing in the way the specific words you choose conjure up phantom tastes on my tongue. It made me realize how limited our vocabulary is for taste. How did you approach the challenge of explaining in text on a page the physical sensation of tasting something you've never tasted before?
Adam Leith Gollner: Yes, the vocabulary of flavor is scant. There are only so many ways to say "scrumptious!" Philosophers have discussed the impossibility of conveying the flavor of a fruit to someone who has never tasted it. As David Hume put it: "we cannot form to ourselves a just idea of the taste of a pineapple, without having actually tasted it." Writers resort to comparisons, similes, metaphors. Reading about a durian that tastes "like undercooked peanut butter-mint omelettes smothered in body odor sauce" entails reference points we're all familiar with. But there comes a time when, as Hume knew, you have to taste these things for yourself. Hopefully the book's phantom vibrations of desire will make you want to actually seek out and experience these fruits. The next step is up to you: come, join the ranks of the fruit hunters!
EM: I'm trying! I've been haunting Chinatown and Little India looking for novel fruit experiences. And as soon as I finished your chapter on the outlandish story of the miracle fruit an amazing berry that makes everything sour taste magically sweet, yet was banned in the U.S. thanks to skullduggery by the terrified sugar industry I ordered some online so I can experience for myself how a single berry can make lemons taste like lemonade, pickles like honey, and vinegar like cream soda. Like so many of the fruits you describe, the miracle fruit sounds like science-fiction or at the very least an elaborate prank. Were you ever convinced one of your fruit hunters was pulling your leg?
AG: There were several occasions while I was researching the story of the miracle fruit when I was convinced that this whole thing was an overwrought hoax. Only when I finally received that letter from the FDA regarding the ban on miraculin did I finally accept that it really happened. There are many anecdotes in The Fruit Hunters that seem so outlandish they can't possibly be true, but they're all based in facts. Perhaps that's why I like writing non-fiction: the truth really is far stranger than anything I could ever make up.
EM: It makes the book such a delightful read at times it's like you've crash-landed on an alien planet and you're sampling all these extraterrestrial delicacies, but then you change gears to explore the fascinating underbelly of the superficially banal everyday world of supermarkets and distribution chains and modern farming. I try to buy all organic produce, thinking it's bound to taste better and encourage more sustainable agriculture practices. But I have this secret fear I'm fooling myself and "organic" is just another marketing label. Is organic fruit better fruit?
AG: It really depends. Sometimes organic fruit tastes better, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes organic fruit isn't even organic it's just labeled that way so it sells for more. Local fruits can be nasty, and a fruit that has traveled from the other side of the world can be sublime. Buying fair-trade tropical fruit can be a way of supporting economies in the developing world. There are no easy rules. I think it does a disservice to the incredible complexity of the fruit world to impose catch-all solutions. I will say this: try to find a guy on the inside a friendly greengrocer or market employee, someone who you can trust, and ask them which fruits to buy. They'll be able to say what's in season, what's ripe, what's better for the environment, and most importantly, what's most delicious.
EM: An average person shopping at an average grocery store gets to choose from maybe 20 different kinds of fruit, yet there are thousands and thousands of fruits that grow around the world. If you were a friendly greengrocer and could be liberated from the rigours of international distribution, such as acquiring fruit firm enough to survive transport and look good a month after it's picked regardless of flavour, what fruits would you ideally stock? That is to say what does the fruit aisle in utopia look like?
AG: That's a wonderful and impossible question. I think my whole book is an inventory of what I'd stock. I'd love to be able to introduce people to flavors that usually require travel whether to Borneo or to a local farm. One of the fruit aisles in utopia would certainly include Canadian raspberry bushes. Go raspberry picking this July, ideally to an organic farm. Then you will taste utopia. There's something about delicious fruits that can't be sold. You need to pick them yourself, to travel for them, to become a fruit hunter. Sometimes the best ones are all around us, and free. Montreal's best cherries can be found in Mile End's alleys. Vancouver's best blackberries are the ones that grow wild in back alleys all over town. If you live in Toronto, head down to Niagara's fruit belt for some fresh peaches and plums. I think all of planet earth is the fruit aisle of utopia. Things aren't always in season, but there are incredible fruits all around us.
Thank you for reading this story…
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