I worry about fruit.
I wonder where its flavor has gone. I brood over its absence of sensuality — when fruit is all about being sensual. I watch with alarm the demise of its overall quality. Quantity we don’t have to worry about, apparently, for supermarkets are overflowing with fruit. But much of it is tasteless, most of it comes from far away, and fruit suffers even more than vegetables do at the hands of industrial agriculture.
I confronted all these issues while working on my book, “Seasonal Fruit Desserts From Orchard, Farm and Market.” Good tasting fruit would speak to a number of dessert-making concerns — it’s generally quick, healthy and doesn’t require immersion in confection-making — but I was stunned anew at what passes for fruit in the United States. What fruits were worth centering a dessert on? Certainly not those pale shadows of fruit found in the supermarket — the peaches picked green and rock hard. Start there and I’d end up with lackluster desserts that rely on a lot of butter, sugar and cream to make an impression. For a more delicious alternative, the need to look for fruit grown much closer to home became quickly apparent.
Fruit, for the most part — citrus being an exception — is delicate stuff. It’s meant to be sensational. Fruit is sexy. It emanates beguiling perfumes and wears showy colors so that it might be found by birds and animals, including us human animals, who will eat it, then leave a pit, a seed or stone to continue the cycle of growth. Fruit’s perfume is its promise of goodness. When you lift a plum to your nose, you’re searching for the scent that tells you that it’s going to be juicy and sweet but with just enough acid to push its honeyed flavor over the top. Yet when I watch people shop I see them drop fruit into plastic bags without bringing it first to their noses to assess whether the promise is faint or strong or even there at all. This deeply human gesture has been lost, for only rarely is there perfume present.
Fruit has become ‘duty food’
I suspect shoppers buy their scent-free fruit because they’ve been told to eat nine servings a day of fruits and vegetables. Fruit, whether fresh or dried, has become a “duty” food, something one ought to eat, not something one lusts to eat. Last winter I bought a package of dried figs, called “Nutra Fig.” The label said only that it was “A fat free high fiber food.” There was no hint that these inky dark morsels might also be succulent, rich, worthy of bathing in aged sherry or being wrapped around a toasted almond. My own feeling is that when the flavor is there, people will eat fruit without being told to and children will be positively greedy for it.
I’ve recently learned that a study done by a nursery specializing in fruit trees found that people under 35 find a soft, juicy peach repulsive. These younger customers prefer a crisp, dry fruit that’s sweet, so this nursery is developing crisp peaches and plums with high sugar content and low acid. Most assuredly these will be the most boring fruits in the world to eat — nothing but a wall of sugar — but this also tells us that our food culture has indeed been changed by agribusiness. A few generations have become accustomed to eating hard fruit. When a food editor in a newspaper describes a strawberry as a crisp fruit, as one did, you might well feel that all is lost.
Finding fruit with promise
As eaters in pursuit of modest pleasures, we need to go to some trouble, but not a lot, to find those fruits with promise. We might find them in farmers markets, orchards and u-picks, and in back yards. And when we do find them, we need to ask their names and remember them, or else we can’t ask for them again. Without names, we are left babbling to a farmer about a peach that was red on the outside and yellow inside and was really good, and that’s not enough. The names of fruits can be beautiful, like Coe’s Golden Drop, a golden plum that lines the branches of the tree like giant teardrops, or they can tell us things, that a Desert Gold peach might grow in Phoenix, (and it does), or that a name given to honor someone, whether a workman named Bing or a duke or a queen. Names are poetry, history and information.
I found many exceptional fruits while researching my book — stellar plums, a plethora of grape varieties, gigantic tayberries, tiny black cap raspberries and dried fruits such as red Friar plums, pluots, pears and white nectarines. Rhubarb grows all summer, not just in May, and pawpaws are making a comeback. I also cooked with my share of tasteless supermarket fruit when I needed to test a recipe. In the end, my advice is buy all you can of whatever wonderful fruit you find and preserve it. Aside from drying and canning, excess fruit can be transformed into sauces, frozen or refrigerated. Look around you, stay close to your season, and see whether you can’t find some treasures. You will not find a wide variety of fruits, but what you find might well be those stellar varieties that will provide you with simply crafted but the most delicious fruit desserts.
Although we benefit at the table when we enjoy well-grown fruit, this isn’t just about us. Supermarkets offer red and black plums — but plums come in every color, shape, size and all have names far more alluring than a common color. All fruit families are immensely diverse, and when we settle for only the red and black plum, we are hastening the loss of diversity. Choose something else, get to know and enjoy it, and we’re helping to ensure that the world of fruit is awash in choice.
Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is “Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”