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The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession
Blame It on Brazil
It is here that we harvest the miraculous fruits your heart hungers for;
come and intoxicate yourself on the strange sweetness.
–Charles Baudelaire, The Voyage
Wiping sand from my eyes, I stumble off a bus outside the Rio de Janeiro botanical garden and pass under the Ionic columns at the entrance. A dirt road leads to the greenery. Royal palms line the way, cathedral pillars vaulting into a canopy.
A fuzzy, neon-green hot dog slithers across my path. I start taking photographs of the creature–a giant millipede–as it undulates toward a plastic orange trash can warping in the heat. Getting deeper into the garden, I come upon the bust of some forgotten botanist, a droplet of tree sap trickling down his forehead like a misplaced tear.
I rest on a bench near a lagoon strewn with lily pads. The silhouette of Cristo Redentor looms down from the summit of Mount Corcovado. Rio isnt quite the fantasyland of Bossa Nova melodies and paradisiacal seascapes I had envisioned. Homeless kids sleep facedown on Ipanemas wavy mosaic boardwalks. Blue smoke curls over rivulets of shantytown sewage. The only good photograph Ive taken is of a black dog lying on the beach at dusk, an ominous canine stain surrounded by white sand, turquoise water and a purple-pink twilight.
I try to not think about home. My grandfather just died. My parents marriage is dissolving. A loved ones manic depression is spiraling into a gruesome battle with addiction. My best friend, recovering from a suicide attempt, has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. To top it all off, my girlfriend of eight years is spending New Years in Europe with her new lover, a French soldier.
I hear a mocking cackle in the foliage above, and spy a couple of toucans kissing each others Technicolor beaks. Suddenly, a nearby tree shakes with commotion. Two ring-tailed, white-whiskered monkeys are playing tag. After a momentary stare-down, one of the monkeys plunges through the air into another tree. Zooming in through my viewfinder, I notice something odd: the branches appear to be sprouting bran muffins.
I pick one of the muffins off the ground. Its brown and woody. It feels like it was baked in a buttered tray at 350 degrees for two hours too long. Not only is the muffin rock hard, its also hollowed out, as though someone had flipped it over and scooped out its insides. The shells interior bears scratch marks and a couple of fibrous veins. I wonder what was once inside these empty confections.
A plaque identifies the tree as a sapucaia. In season, the cupcakes grow packed with a half dozen seeds shaped like orange segments. At ripeness, these burst through the base, scattering on the ground. Impatient young monkeys sometimes punch into an unripe muffin and wrap their fingers around a fistful of nuts. Because their cognitive faculties are not developed enough to understand that extracting their paws requires letting go of the nuts, they end up dragging their sapucaia handcuffs around for miles.
In English, these sapucaias are called paradise nuts, an appellation dating back to the European discovery of the New World, then considered the site of heaven. In the sixteenth century, Frances Jean de Lery became convinced that he had found Eden in a Brazilian pineapple patch. In 1560, Portuguese explorer Rui Pereira announced that Brazil was officially paradise on earth.
If I cant find paradise in Brazil, maybe I can find some paradise nuts instead. I head to a small grocery market outside the park. Any sapucaias? The cashier shakes his head, but offers me a Brazil nut, which he says is similar. Biting into it, Im amazed at how creamy and coconutty it is compared to those impossible-to-open monstrosities that lurked in childhood Christmas nut bowls.
Oversized pineapples, melons and clusters of bananas hang from the ceiling in mesh netting. I pick up a cashew apple, which looks a lot like an angry red pepper capped with a crescent-shaped nut. The green cambucis resemble miniature B-movie flying saucers. The billiard-ball-sized guavas are so fragrant that the ones I buy perfume my hotel room for the rest of my stay.
Heading toward the beach, I eat my way through a shopping bag full of the salesmans untranslatable recommendations. Sinking my teeth into one of the scarlet pearlike jambos makes me think of crunching on refreshingly sweet Styrofoam. The transparent gummy flesh of a lemon-shaped abiu tastes like a cross between wine gums and the crème caramels served in French bistros back home. A machete-toting coconut vendor, noticing my tentative nibbling of a maracujás bitter skin, slices the orb in half and shows me how to slurp up the lavender-fruit-punch viscera.
I enter a suco bar, one of the countless juice stalls brightening Rios crumbling street corners, wondering if I can recognize any of the fruits. The purple açai berries on the menu look like the marbles we called “nightmares” in grade two. Across the counter sits a crate full of eyeballs. The owner hands me one of the red-rimmed ocular globules, and out dangles an optic nerve attached to a pitch-black iris and a leering white sclera. Its a guaraná fruit, he says, a natural stimulant thats processed to make energy-boosting shakes and soft drinks. I stare at it staring back at me.
Hypnotized, I copy the list of fruits on the stands menu into my notebook.
By now, the sun is setting into the pastel horizon. Clouds of confetti swirl through the air, paving the ground with tropical snow. I nearly forgot that its New Years Eve. The beach has filled with revelers dressed in white. Many have come to the ocean from hillside slums, bearing statues of Macumba saints. They light candles and arrange bits of ribbon around sacrificial flower petals for Iemanjá, the shape-shifting spirit of the waters. As their prayers crash against the waves, the surface of the sea dances with offerings.
I look down at my list of fruits and recite the names under my breath, syncing into the rhythms of nearby batucada drummers. Softly chanting, I close my eyes, and feel a sense of peace. For a moment, I forget everything. I forget my name. I forget why I came here. All I know is abacaxí, açai, ameixa, cupuaçu, graviola, maracujá, taperebá, uva, umbu.
The Fruit Underworld
Man, you know Adam enjoyed things that kings and queens will never have and things kings and queens cant never get and they dont even know about.
–Howlin Wolf, Going Down Slow
There is a theory that explains humankinds communion with fruits: biophilia, or the “love of life.” Psychologist Erich Fromm coined the term in 1964 as a way of describing the innate attraction to processes of life and growth. The hypothesis suggests that organisms facing death can preserve themselves through contact with living systems. Biologists then adopted the term, noting a tendency for humans to feel a spiritually transformative connectedness with nature. “Our existence depends on this propensity,” wrote Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson. Citing evidence of quicker rates of recovery for patients exposed to images of green spaces, scientists speculate that biophilia is an evolutionary mechanism ensuring the survival of interdependent life-forms.
In Brazil, fruits seemed to be calling out to me. I returned the call. From then on, I couldnt seem to shake them.
As mundane as they may appear, fruits are also deeply alluring. To begin with, theres something unusual about their very omnipresence. Fruits are everywhere, perspiring on street corners, chilling in hotel lobbies and on teachers desks, coagulating in yogurts and drinks, adorning laptops and museum walls.
Although a select few species dominate international trade, our whole planet is brimming with fruits that are inaccessible, ignored and even forbidden. There are mangoes that taste like piña coladas. Orange cloudberries. White blueberries. Blue apricots. Red lemons. Golden raspberries. Pink cherimoyas. Willy Wonkas got nothing on Mother Nature.
The diversity is dizzying: most of us have never heard of the araça, but Amazonian fruit authorities say there are almost as many types of this yellow-green guava relative as there are beaches in Brazil. Within the tens of thousands of edible plant species, there are hundreds of thousands of varieties–and new ones are continually evolving. Magic beans, sundrops, cannonballs, delicious monsters, zombi apples, gingerbread plums, swan egg pears, Oaxacan trees of little skulls, Congo goobers, slow-match fruits, candle fruits, bastard cherries, bignays, belimbings, bilimbis and biribas. As Hamlet mightve said: “There are more fruits in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Among the fruit worlds most euphonious offerings, the clove lilly pilly tastes like pumpkin pie and goes well with kangaroo meat. Existentialists might prefer camu-camus, which are purple drops of sour deliciousness. The yum-yum tree sprouts what appear to be fluffy yellow dusters. Certain Pacific islands have yang-yang trees up the yin yang. Other fruity two-twos include far-fars, lab-labs, num-nums, jum-lums and lovi-lovis.
Many botanically documented plants, like the looking-glass tree, appear to have somehow escaped from a Lewis Carroll laudanum reverie. The pincushion fruit, with its spiked cloak of white rays, is like an exploding star frozen in time. The toothbrush trees fruits are eaten before bed in the Punjab and the fruits of the toothache tree are used in Virginia to alleviate dental malaise. Succulent umbrella fruits are cherished in the Congo. The glistening puddinglike eta fruit is eaten by tilting the head back and slurping it down like an oyster. The fruits of the toad tree look like frogs and taste like carrots. The milk orange of Wen-chou is a citrus fruit shot though with a creamy mist that, when peeled, swirls enchantingly through the air. Kids play football with the fruit of the money tree. The emu apple is eaten after being buried in soil for several days. Sword fruits call to mind dangling sabers in the moonlight; theyre also called broken bones plants or midnight horrors because clumps of fallen fruit are periodically mistaken for skeletal remains.
The pirate books young children devour occasionally mention the inconceivably delicious fruits that buccaneers used to eat while hiding out on tropical islands. In Neverland, the Lost Boys and Peter Pan, “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees,” ate roasted breadfruits, mammee apples and calabashes of poe-poe. It was only in Brazil that I realized such fruits were real. There are thousands upon thousands of fruits that we never imagined–and that few of us will ever taste, unless we embark on fruit-hunting expeditions.
In the tropics, kids eat rare jungle fruits the way North Americans eat candy. Even fruits that weve learned to steer clear of at supermarkets suddenly taste excellent in their native lands. When I first encountered a papaya on a teenaged trip to Central America, I was astounded by its flavor, how it filled my mouth with an edible perfume. The ones at home all tasted vaguely unhygienic.
In my experience, fruits are inextricably linked with travel, with other lands, with escaping. Growing up in suburban Montreal, winters were pretty fruitless. When I was thirteen, my family moved to Budapest for a couple of years. My brothers and I had never tasted apricots, peaches and tomatoes as good as the ones that grew in our backyard and in our relatives orchards. It was easy to see why the Hungarian word for “paradise” also means tomato: paradiscom.
Ten years later, I tasted a grape at my fathers Hungarian vineyard that floored me with a recollection from age four or five. It was dawn, and my brother and I woke up to go buy grape Bubblicious at the Black Cat, a candy store down the street. The store was off-limits–as was most candy–but, overcome with desire for those cubes of purple awesomeness, we decided the solution was simply to go and get some before our parents woke up. We arrived at the Black Cat as the sun was rising. Needless to say, it wasnt open. We peered through the window at the fireworks, comic books, arcade games, and all those candies. Clutching our fistfuls of nickels and dimes, we hiked back home to our anxious parents, who had called the police and started a manhunt. Like something out of Ingmar Bergmans Wild Strawberries, the buried escapade returned with an instant recall the moment I tasted that Concord grape.
Pablo Neruda said that when we bite into apples, we become, for an instant, young again. When I was in Paris, an Algerian taxi driver spent the entire ride describing the prickly pears of his youth, lamenting their taste in France but vividly recalling how sweet they were in his homeland. A wholesaler in New York told me of discovering a quince perfuming the clothes in his mothers armoire when he was a child. “What did you do when you found it?” I asked. “I sniffed it,” he replied.
Bertolt Brecht once wrote a poem about seeing some fruits in the tree outside his window that teleported him to a more innocent age. In the verses he spends a few minutes debating quite seriously whether to put on his glasses “in order to see those black berries again on their tiny red stalks.” The poem ends without any resolution. Brecht left it ambiguous, but I cannot. I pick up my glasses and am sucked into a Proustian fruit wormhole, where I find myself in the company of other shortsighted pomophiles.
Largely hidden from the public eye, there exists a subculture of enthusiasts who have devoted their lives to the quest for fruit. With associations like the North American Fruit Explorers and the Rare Fruit Council International, the denizens of this fruit underworld are as special as the flora they pursue. The forest, from the Latin floris, meaning “outside,” has always attracted outsiders. Since 1910, the word “fruit” has been used to denote an eccentric or unusual person. Writing this story meant getting to know fruit nuts, fruit smugglers, fruit explorers, fruit fetishists, fruit inventors, fruit cops, fruit robbers, fruitarians and even a fruit massager. These characters offer a glimpse into our planets diversity–both botanical and human.
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