New York Times book critic Janet Maslin recently picked Adam Gollner’s new book, The Fruit Hunters (Scribner: 2008), as a top summer read—and it’s easy to see why. Gollner writes mellifluously about his extraordinary (writ extraterrestrial) experiences traveling the world in search of fruits and the wacky people who devote their lives to this quest.
In the Seychelles, Gollner—or perhaps Adam is his best suited moniker—manages to get his hands on the uncannily female-looking coco-de-mer, or ‘lady fruit,’ whose “innards are translucent, almost like a silicon gel implant but with a softer, shaky-pudding texture” with “a mild citruslike quality, refreshing and sweet with earthy, spunky notes…like coconut flesh, only sexier.”
He then visits the jungles of Borneo to taste the intensely odoriferous “nutty, almondlike,” and “fully constructed dessert” of fresh durians, where the “juicy white cubes of flesh fuse a custard’s richness with a cakelike powderiness… topped with “vanilla-spruce frosting”—a far cry from the false gas leak alarm-spawning durians he got in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where they tasted of “undercooked peanut butter-mint omelets in body-odor sauce.” In Hawaii he tempts us with his description of the dusky brown chicos tasting of “maple syrup pudding,” and a host of other Neverland varietals such as bignays, gourkas, sapotes, mombins, langsats.
Over fruit smoothies one recent morning in Montreal, I met with Adam to discuss his new book and the sweet allure of the infinite world of fertilized flowers.
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In your book, The Fruit Hunters, you portray yourself as hunted (haunted?) and hunter of fruits. But do you consider yourself a fruit hunter?
I feel like I was somebody who was part of that subculture for while, as a sort of spy—as somebody who was witnessing their world, but not as a full participant. I think full participant would be somebody who devoted their life to it, and I’m somebody who just came in for a brief spell. Just long enough to understand their enthusiasm, and to get a little bit of a taste of these fruits. I certainly took on the obsession for purposes of understanding them, and the topic—kind of like immersive journalism. I was much more of reporter who got deeply into this world, but is now leaving that world. Real fruit hunters are people who are in that world, and I don’t know if they ever come out.
Why do you think people become fruit hunters? What is it about fruit that is so tempting, so seductive?
I don’t want to exaggerate, but fruits have played a large part in evolving who we are. We ate fruit and without them we would not have become humans. That’s why they’re everywhere. We evolved together. They are like a kind of brother spirit. Fruits are deeply linked into our idea of survival. Fruit takes us to these deep places in the brain, these archaic mechanisms of your cerebral functions. There’s a kind of gratitude in this thing that has allowed you to stay alive. Fruit is hardwired into our central nervous system. Or maybe I just notice it because I’ve thought about it a lot.
What makes for a great fruit experience?
A really great fruit experience is when you feel that by eating this fruit we all have something in common. It’s this sensation which leaves you speechless. I think of it as a horizontal feeling — when you bite into it and you just pause for a moment. There’s something almost religious about that experience. There’s a sense of surrender. There is some sort of thing greater than you and you are reminded of that. You are in awe of that. Worshipful, even. It’s really a powerful sensation when I taste something good and it immediately goes to this religious center of my brain. I could describe it as biophilia, I guess. But it really gets into the limits of language.
A really great fruit experience…leaves you speechless. “There’s something almost religious about it…”
There is a great expression from Wittgenstein that trying to speak about things beyond the limits of language is like trying to repair a broken cobweb with your fingers. I think that’s sort of like thinking about what really great fruits are like. It’s beyond language. It’s before language.
And yet you wrote a rather substantial book about fruit, one with no pictures and illustrations on top of that.
It reminds me again of Wittgenstein, about whom they said, ‘he’s a guy who manages to say an awful lot about that which can’t be talked about.’
You had many adventures in researching this book. What was your most memorable fruit experience?
A really great day was when I went to visit a farm in California called Andy’s Orchard. It was August 1st, a couple of years ago. He’s a guy who grows really special heirloom varieties of stonefruits. He’s traveled to the places of origin for peaches, nectarines, and brought back the germoplasm (the growing materials) to grow this incredible diversity—all kinds of plums and cherries—and all stonefruits. They’re the best you’ll ever have in the world. Maybe you would have something almost that good if you went to Samarkand. But even then, it would probably be hard, and you’d have to travel to about 10 orchards. But I think Andy’s are even better.
We went on this one day when this one peach was at its height of perfection. I was with a couple of friends and we ate about 50 of them, plus maybe a hundred other fruits. There were some nectarines that when you bit into them it was like biting into a water balloon. There was this explosion of nectar would splatter to the floor. That’s where I understood the lure of stonefruits. I had previously been more interested in weird tropical fruits, but it was then that I understood how good these things can be.
In your book we met fruitarians such as the supernaturally-inclined Children of Light in the Arizona desert. These people aim to subsist almost entirely on fruits. Did you ever consider fruitarianism?
No. That’s an extremist thing to do. I think fundamentalists can be interesting, funny, strange, and make for great, weird stories. But I’m not one myself, in any way. There are lots of food fundamentalists out there, and fruitarianism is one form of that, and that’s fine. But it’s so rigid and unyielding. I like spinach.
Do you think we live in a good fruit period of history?
Fruits have gotten way better, especially in terms of availability. I can take you to the corner store and get a peach. It may not be good, but it’s there. A hundred years ago there was no peach at the corner store. Now that we’ve managed to make availability a reality, there is a new focus on trying to bring flavor back. So we’ll see if that can happen.
Yet you certainly espouse the belief in local foods in your book. But short of booking an airplane trip to Douala every time we have a craving for the ‘orange-caramel’ flavored keranji papan, do you think North Americans will ever be able to try such rarities as jaboticabas, peanut butter fruits, or cloudberries?
I don’t have an answer to that. But there is an emerging debate between local food and food that comes from the developing world. There are two sides to this debate: environmental and economical. Developing nations have tropical fruit. If there was a way to bring fruits from the developing world in a way that would not be harmful to the environment, we would be in a perfect situation. They would be able to export their crops in export quantities, which is a central feature of modern capitalism. Most of the developing nations just import stuffs. They don’t have too much they can export that they are in control of. But fruits are one of the things they could control. So if we could discover a way of getting those things here sustainably, we’d be in a great place.
Why do you live in Montreal, one of these least fruity cities around?
I’m born here. This is my home. It’s the best place to live. Whether you live here or Los Angeles, or Indonesia, you always have a limited amount of things that are good in your corner of the universe. And we have just as many good things in our corner, as in any other. Maybe not all year round, but no matter where you are there are good things, if you know where to look. We have great sour cherries in my neighborhood that we make clafouti with.
We have great plums in the alleyways. Raspberries are all around. And then there are stores like anywhere else that bring in good produce. You just have to find them.
How do we know which fruit are good?
Everyone asks me how to choose good fruit, but I have no idea how to answer that question. Every single fruit has different requirements and an incredibly complex amount of variables that go into it. There’s the supermarket hedonics of thumbing, flicking, sniffing, rubbing – but there’s still no way of gauging whether these things actually taste good.
So, this is the one useful thing I have for the world: find a guy. Go see him, become friends with him. Build a relationship with him (or her) and treat them well. Ask him what’s good. He’ll tell you, it might be the ratty mangy-looking peaches that are amazing. It’s often the thing you would never think of tasting. I have a guy I go see, and every week of the year he sells some good fruit—you just have to ask him what the good ones are. There’s the famous Julia Child dictum, do you have a relationship with your butcher? It’s the same with fruits. Everyone should have a fruiterer, somebody who works at a grocery store or at a fruit market, somebody who is there sourcing fruit. He knows what is good. He’s on the inside.
You employ a wonderful variety of adjectives and descriptions of the fruits you’ve sampled around the world. It struck me as I was reading that one should consider the flavors embedded in good fruits in the same way we taste wine, chocolate, or cheese. Do we have to develop our palettes to be able to sense and distinguish the layers of flavors embedded in fruits?
It’s not exactly the same as wine. Fruits are like unlike anything else in the world, with completely unique flavors and textures. The only way of ever being able to describe them to somebody else is to compare them to things that people know. So you have to get into the usage of similes and metaphors and comparisons. When you say that there is a fig that tastes like raspberry jam, it’s not exactly raspberry jam, but it’s a lot closer to raspberry jam than when you say a wine has notes of raspberry jam.
Can you give us some practical tips on how to best savor the flavor of fruit?
It depends on the fruit. But for the most part it’s the opposite of a wine tasting. It can be a refined experience — there is something nice about that. The fruit is well presented, with all the little bits cut out for you so you can have your little filet of loquat. But there’s something more exciting about getting a little bit primal about it, becoming more like a forest creature yourself, getting kind of sloppy with it. I think that’s the way to eat fruit. Let it get all over you. Get in touch with your inner ape.
Adam photo credit: Jason Sanchez
Peach photo credit, click here.
Cherry photo credit, click here.