Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review: The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Obsession, Commerce, and Adventure by Adam Leith Gollner

Warning: It is dangerous to read this book if you also receive seed catalogs; it is especially so if you are getting rare seed and heirloom catalogs.

While on a trip to Brazil, Gollner stops at a local market and buys a bag full of unfamiliar fruits, discovering a whole array of new tastes. This sets him on the road to exploring the world of fruit and fruit enthusiasts, ultimately taking him on a series of trips and interviews as he learns about the kinds of fruit not typically available in American supermarkets, the way fruits have been altered to fit the supermarket model, and how and why some flavored fruits are coming back to consumers.

I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, Gollner can write, and write well. His descriptions of tropical fruit are mouth-watering; I want to try them all. He also does a lot of interviewing and travelling to far-flung places to try his new fruits and meet with fruit enthusiasts, many of whom are quite eccentric. On the other, some of the earlier facts he cites seem to have been chosen more for being spectacular than for being actually factual, and that means that I put question marks next to anything he didn't directly experience or that I cannot verify through other reading.

The opening chapter or so has a medley of fruit facts. They're all quite interesting, but they include things like Gollner casually relating that plants "even possess a form of intelligence: bananas and oranges connected to lie-detecting polygraphs have been shown to respond to mathematics questions in experiments by by Dr. Ken Hashimoto and Cleve Backster. Aked how much two plus two is, the plants emit a hum that forms into four peaks when translated into ink tracings." No. Just--no. Plants do not have nervous systems or ears. Lie detectors are not a good way of measuring their knowledge(1). I think this was pretty clear by 2008, the book's publication date. Similarly, he makes the occasional blithe statement about prehistoric man as though we really, truly, clearly knew what said individual thought and did. We have ideas, but full awareness of ritual? Not so much. Complicating this last is the absence of any sort of footnoting or clear works cited. There's a "Further Reading" list that looks interesting, but not an "All my research is here" list. So, lots of things had to have question marks beside them.

That said, I still enjoyed the book a lot. Much of Gollner's information comes from interviews and directly trying the fruits in question, which ups the reliability quotient of the book as a whole. And, as I said, he can write. Take this description of dragon fruit "crisp white flesh dotted with small black seeds, like a solidified milk shake...shocking pink rinds and black and white interiors.... The delicate flavor is vaguely reminiscent of strawberries and concord grapes" Don't you want to try it now? Or mangosteen "Each self-contained section is just firm enough to suspend the incomparable juice in a perfect degree of tension. I could say that it tastes like minty raspberry-apricot sorbet, but the only way to truly know a mangosteen is to try one." His writing throughout is lively and engaging, making him good company for arm-chair traveling through the world of fruit.

And the whole project of Fruit Hunters--tracking down as many fruits as possible and meeting with as many fruit enthusiasts as he can, is appealing. Gollner meets with quite an array of guides and eccentrics as he talks to fruitarians (people who live only on fruit), the creator of Grapples (artificially grape-flavored apple (Yuck!)), a fruit photographer who describes Gollner as his groupie, the owner of a hotel willing to share his rare lady fruit, and others.

On the whole, I recommend The Fruit Hunters to folks who like slice-of-life reading, eccentrics, or gardening. But I repeat: Don't read this and any sort of garden catalog, email, or website at the same time. Just don't (see below for why).

A partial list of things I want to grow now so that I can taste them--only, I don't really have room for an orchard!

Mangosteen (a tree)
More kinds of figs (I have a Brown Turkey fig tree that just started bearing. They are good).
Longan (Tree again)
Dragon Fruit (Cactus)
Kishu (a variety of mandarin)
Mara de Bois strawberries (Those I might be able to fit in somewhere).
Chocolate vine (Maybe I could fit it in? Though I wonder how many kinds there are--Gollner's source makes it sound desirable; I just read a how-to on calling it "not very palatable." Then again, I am growing Wonderberry, which is either delicious or insipid, depending on who you ask, just to find out what I think, so the discrepancy doesn't rule out the vine; "rampant growth, on the other hand, might prove a problem. I already grow passion vine, which is quite rampant enough)

At least I'm already growing Charanteis melon! I even have a few extra plants needing re-homing.

1 For a much better and thoroughly fascinating look at the sorts of things plants know and can do, plus a good look at plant science, try What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz.

Random side note: This book appears to have several covers. On the whole, I like the second one (the one on the copy I read), best of what I've seen.

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