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Fruity Encounters: Interview with Adam Gollner (Win His Book)

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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.

Below the jump: Win a copy of Adam Gollner’s The Fruit Hunters!

fruithunters.jpgWIN A COPY of The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession. To enter, tell us: What is your most memorable fruit experience? Leave your comment below by Monday, August 18, and be entered in a raffle to win! (One comment per reader will be counted in the raffle).

Good luck & enjoy the interview!

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.

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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?

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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.

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26 Responses to “Fruity Encounters: Interview with Adam Gollner (Win His Book)”

  1. S Carrico Says:

    It’s common enough, but indelible: the perfect peach on the perfect day with my perfect grandma smiling at me, just a year or so ago.

  2. Rachel Kahn-Troster Says:

    I am very picky about raspberries. I grew up picking them on a small farmer near my grandparents, and I can tell you that local ones freshly picked look and smell differently than even the best driscoll ones flown in from California (which have improved over the years). I’ve been very disappointed with the local raspberries near me in NJ the past few years, but this summer, I got some local Ontario ones when I was back in Toronto visiting my grandmother. All kinds of taste and smell memories washed back over me. These were real raspberries.

  3. Hannah Lee Says:

    Another great post from jacarrot!
    My dilemma this summer is do I choose the non-organic (minimally sprayed) peaches sold at my farmers’ market or the organic ones at Whole Foods which have been brought in from further farming regions? I’m familiar with the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of most pesticide-laden conventionally grown fruits and vegetables: peaches are at the top of their list.

  4. chyk Says:

    being in hawaii and eating a mango straight off a tree. oh yum yum yum.

  5. Allison Says:

    My most memorable fruit experience was having starfruit for the first time. I was 11 and at a close family friend’s wedding. The whole experience was magical, it was a beautiful wedding. I remember being in awe of the beauty of the bride and the hall that the reception was in. Then at the reception there was a platter holding fruits that I had never seen before. I remember bitting into a slice of star fruit and thinking that this experience, this piece of fruit, was the height of class. It all seemed so glamorous. Every time I see a star fruit in the grocery store I remember that feeling, but don’t buy them because I don’t think it will ever live up to that experience again.

  6. Shirley Rabinovitch Says:

    Wild Blueberry’s , wild raspberries are my favorites when they are picked in the Laurentien mountains where they are growing wild without any pesticide being used,

  7. Alix Says:

    Pineapple and coconuts in Thailand. Coconut shakes, or the water from baby coconuts, slurped down with ice-cold water, or chunks of pineapple sold ice cold in a plastic bag, with a stick to spear them into your mouth. Since Thailand, I almost never eat pineapple in the US, it’s never as good.

  8. Leah Koenig Says:

    These are great! Alix, your pineapple comment is right on. When I visited Hawaii about a decade ago, I ate amazing fresh pineapple every day for breakfast. I still eat it occasionally back on the mainland, but it never compares.

    I think it’s fascinating how powerful a good fruit experience can be (“almost religious” as Adam said) – how it can permanently change our expectations of a certain food and impact what we choose to eat in the future.

  9. Devo K Says:

    Growing up I’d often spend Shabbat at my aunt’s house and we’d make fresh blueberry pies together.

    Unfortunately since moving to Israel, the only way I can get fresh blueberries is if I’m willing to pay a small fortune for them.

  10. Zane Caplansky Says:

    I recently went on the most perfect picnic here in Toronto. For the occasion I picked up some organic fruit (peaches, plums, cherries and apricots) and stinky cheeses in Kensington Market. The apricots were mushy and sour but the plums were a colour and flavour I’ll never forget. Thinking just now I can vividly see the red tones of the plum’s flesh, the deep red cherries, the blue hazy sky and the white wings of the swan that came flapping by as we sat on a red blanket. It was a magical day.

  11. Thursday Says:

    When I was 13, I spent half the summer stealing raspberries out of our neighbor’s patch. Totally worth the scratches I picked up.

  12. Leah Koenig Says:

    I’m just realizing that nobody has written about a great fruit experience with an apple or banana – the two top-selling fruits in America. Maybe these fruits are our “practical” fruits – devoid of any deeper experience b/c we eat them so regularly, and b/c they’ve been hybridized to be large – practical fruits? – but not especially flavorful or delicious.

  13. Michael Kay Says:

    I can’t pick just one:

    1) A near neighbor and friend in Los Angeles when I was growing up would let us use her pool, and she had a peach tree growing very close to it, of some white peach variety (Babcock, possibly). On a hot day, drugged on pool fun and chlorine, biting into a perfectly ripe white California peach, was the earliest great fruit experience.

    2) Picking and eating the gigantic peaches from the California State University at Chico farm. Those trees were huge, and you needed a ladder. The peaches weighed up to 2 pounds each. It was probably about 110 degrees out. The amount of juice was staggering.

    3) Wandering along roads and paths in coastal Marin County in California on warm late summer days with a friend, eating ourselves sick and getting scratched to high heaven wading into wild blackberry patches. There’s always that perfect one that requires reaching in just a little further. Taking those home to eat with good vanilla ice cream was outrageous.

    And to get away from California, wild blueberries on the Maine coast and in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania.

    That’s enough. In other words, nothing beats the fresh ripe stuff.

  14. Leah Koenig Says:

    FYI – there’s still four more days to win Adam’s book! Tell us your most memorable fruit experience by Monday, August 18 to be entered into the raffle…

  15. Hannah Lee Says:

    I spoke with the coordinator of my farmers’ market and she says that it’s very hard to grow fruit without any spraying in Pennsylvania because it’s too damp. So, she encouraged me to question each farmer each week, as they do prefer to use the least intervention possible. Of course, customers who have medical reasons (chemotherapy, for instance) to avoid all sources of chemicals may need to choose strictly organic fruit and vegetables.

  16. SqueakyChu Says:

    My most memorable fruit experience took place over 30 years ago in Europe. I had been traveling with a friend. She and I had just completed a one-year Sherut La’Am (service to the people) volunteer program sponsored by the Jewish Agency in Israel. While traveling through Greece, we happened upon a wine festival in Athens. No sooner had we begun to enjoy the music and taste a few of the wines than we found ourselves agreeing to dance in a vat of grapes. No kidding!! It was kind of painful, but great fun nonetheless. Since we didn’t know the Greek dances that the others were doing, my friend and I decided to dance the hora. At least it went in the same direction. When the dance was over, all of the dancers were awarded a prize which turned out to be – a bunch of grapes!

  17. Lauren Springer Says:

    Living with my family in Russia for two years, nothing tasted quite right. The milk and cheese had an odd flavor, meat tasted gamey, vegtables were often pickled, the “Coke Lite” was flavorless and the local chocolate was chalky and bitter. When we went to the farmers market the fruit was ripe and perfect. For those few minutes when we were devouring the fruit, it tasted like home.

  18. Tricia Says:

    My daughter never took a bottle. She refused anything but the breast until she was 7.5 months old. I have this picture of her in my mind: She’s sitting upright in nothing but a diaper on the floor of my husband’s family’s cabin. And she’s clutching a ripe apricot in both hands, mashing it into her tiny teeth. She’s beautiful and I’m relieved: I finally have evidence that she’ll–someday!–get sustenance from some source other than me!

  19. Leah Koenig Says:

    Thanks again to everyone for your wonderful, juicy stories. And congratulations to S. Carrico for being randomly selected to win a copy of The Fruit Hunters!

    Stay tuned to The Jew & The Carrot for more chances to win great foodie books and prizes.

    - Leah

  20. Marushka Says:

    The ground cherry plants grew in a corner of the garden, housed in a white-painted cold frame. From this glassed-in world they peered out at a drought-plagued early summer as anxiously as I peered in at them, and only when their leaves were large enough to poke jauntily through the now-open frame did rains come in place of watering cans. As white and yellow blossoms appeared, I learned to anticipate the question, “What on earth is that?” Explaining the ground cherry proved difficult; a tomato’s miniature cousin in a paper lantern husk was strange, but the fruits’ habit of ripening only after falling on the ground raised eyebrows, and the rumored pineapple-cereal taste raised speculation even higher. Having never eaten the fruit, I could give any related information except that most hungered after by inquirers. I could only invite the curious to return mid-August. Meanwhile, the plants’ blossoms withered and fell to the bees’ courtship, and embryonic fruits showed. As the fruit-containing husks delicately inflated under the leaves’ cover, pilgrims came seeking the fruit, but the time was early. As the husks fell, doubts rose, and I watched 2 days as green lanterns singed brown. On the 3rd day, the dead husks split open to reveal the glory of golden berries to the hopeful. The berries called to those who had kept vigil. All day I gave ground cherries to those who had eagerly waited, and in the evening, I still had not tasted. There were none left. The western sun glowed golden, like the berries I had given; clouds split around it like a husk, and I finally tasted the ground cherries’ sweet, indescribable flavor in the satisfied joy brought by the fruit I had given to all.

  21. Sara Says:

    Palates not palettes

  22. Shine Says:

    Fruits are more available now..that’s true. I live in the tropics and we have really yummy and exotic fruits here but we also get to enjoy fruits from other countries like apples, oranges and grapes.

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