Pros: Vivid, mouth-watering descriptions. Energetic and entertaining writing.
Cons: Gets pretty raunchy at times. Definitely R-rated.
There may be as many as 500,000 different kinds of fruit in the botanical world. A significant proportion of our human and primate history has been spent trying to figure out which ones are edible, or if there is a way to transform them into some sort of edible form. While the proper technique for apple or mango consumption may seem rather obvious, it is no simple task to figure out how to eat a coconut, a cacao bean or a stalk of wheat. In The Fruit Hunters, journalist Adam Leith Gollner explores the fascinating science of fruit (pomology), attempting to sample a multitude of the up to 80,000 edible fruits - and countless more varieties - that exist worldwide.
Until I read this book, I used to think that exotic cuisine involved eating weird seafood, insects or strange fungi, never recognizing the varied and bizarre world of fruit. Gollner is at his best when he's describing the myriad fruits he samples while traveling the world. From unusual varieties of common fruits - blue apricots, red lemons and white blueberries - to scores of fruits of which I'd never heard - yang-yang fruits, dragon fruits and mangosteens to name just a few.
But the most notorious - although amazingly lusted after by many - is undoubtedly the durian, originally from Indonesia. Gollner's vivid description of this weird, spike-covered fruit almost causes me to become ill.
"It has been compared to rotting fish, stale vomit, unwashed socks, old jockstraps, low-tide seaweed, a charnel house, sewage in a heat wave, pig sh*t and baby diapers, turpentine, a disinterred corpse clutching a wheel of blue cheese and French custard passed through a sewer pipe. Eating them is said to be like eating your favorite ice cream while sitting on the toilet. The ones we ate in Manhattan tasted like undercooked peanut butter-mint omelets in body-odor sauce. Smoldering burps resurrected the flavor well into the following morning."
Gollner spends much of the 260 page book introducing dozens of avid fruit hunters, past and present, who devote their lives to finding, breeding and passionately reveling in the gustatory glory of fruit. He does a fine job of capturing the infectious enthusiasm that these people display, making for some fun reading. I also think he does an admirable job of describing the many things he tastes. The English language isn't really well equipped to explain exactly what a peach, papaya or black sapote tastes like, yet despite this limitation his descriptions are often captivating and mouth-watering.
When he's not describing delicious cloudberries from Alaska, loquats from China or some repulsive sounding durian variety, Gollner spends several of the sixteen chapters describing the economics of fruit, including breeding, industrialization, marketing, smuggling and genetic modification. He makes these potentially dry topics quite fascinating with his high-energy, dynamic writing style. These sections introduce the nectacotum (neck-tuh-COT-um?), a nectarine/apricot/plum hybrid; the Grapple (GRAY-pull), a Washington apple infused with grape flavoring, available at WalMart; and the kiwi, originally known as the Chinese gooseberry and clearly the fruit marketing success story of the 20th century.
Gollner also spends time with various groups of fruitarians, people who subsist entirely on fruit - in one case, eating up to ten pounds a day, divided into fourteen separate meals. Whether choosing the fruit-only lifestyle for nutritional, religious or spiritual reasons, these people appear to extend the human goofiness spectrum to new extremes; although the author treats them with appropriate respect and introduces some compelling ideas about the health benefits of fruit.
While I accept the author's contention that fruit can evoke libidinous passion and sensuality, I do feel that he gets carried away at times with his often unrestrained R-rated descriptions. Given my sturdy, forty-something constitution, I was able to handle some of his raunchier references, but I'm not sure that I would really want my teenage son to read parts of this book and I'm sure the Church Lady would have passed out within the first few pages. The book would benefit from an editor with a slightly higher prude factor.
I enjoyed The Fruit Hunters from cover to cover and would gladly read more by this high-energy author. He reveals a whole new world of food that I hope to experience more fully. When I've been in the tropics in the past, I've been content to sample the delicious, locally-grown mangos, papayas and pineapples - but no longer will I be satisfied with such mundane fare. Bring on the jackfruits, the rambutans and the coco-de-mer! Maybe even a mild durian? Maybe not.