Fruits of My Labor

I consider gastronomy to be an element of my pop-cultural world, and with the increasing penetration of chefs or chef characters into television, books, and film, I think the culture has concurred. This will be the first of a series of occasional entries on food.

Raspberries are so beautiful. Their perfect conical shape, the lovely clumps of tiny cells that make the whole. The delicate hairs that extend from each clump, tickling softly on the tongue. The richness of their red. In the mouth, squishy and crumbly and vaguely crunchy all at once, sweet down to the seeds that stick in your teeth. The way some of them taste ever so slightly of soil. Fingers covered in a juice so electric pink you would think Pantone had expanded into fruit.

I didn’t used to like raspberries.

My birth, in the halcyon year of 1986, coincided with two major events in American food: the heyday of processed food, and the saturation point of factory farming. Granted, when you’re a kid choosing between cookies and fruit, there’s usually only one winner. For my generation, however, the game was especially rigged. On one side, I had ever-present access to the bounty of multitudinous corporate labs, from Juicy Juice to Cheez-Its to Dunkaroos, and especially the intense, penetrating sweetness of soda. It came advertised on my favorite programs and decorated with happy cartoon emblems. Its jingles penetrated down to my bones.

On the other side lay fruits and vegetables, glossy and beautiful and tasteless. They looked perfect in the store, even when they had spent three weeks on a carrier ship bound from Chile, but they tasted like nothing, and even the fact that I was “supposed” to eat them didn’t improve them. Oranges were dry, barely emitting juice. Corn was starchy but lacked any sweetness. Berries left a slight, evaporated sour flavor.

But I didn’t know that these foods could have other flavors, because I was a kid at the time. As far as I was concerned, this was just how fruit was. And I couldn’t understand how adults could eat it.

If we lived today, my family could have found its salvation in the whole local/organic thing, going to farmer’s markets, the works. But in 1994, we just had Publix. Winn-Dixie, maybe, if you were feeling adventurous. Unable to control the taste of what we were eating, my parents’ focus shifted to what it was doing to our waistlines. When nutrition facts were introduced and the fat crisis of the early 90’s broke big, my mother reacted by doing what she thought was best. Unfortunately, she fell for the same myth that a lot of people did. Our lunchbox Oreos were replaced with SnackWells. Our Triscuits became fat-free, our ice cream low-calorie. And so we continued to put crap in our bodies, assuming that we had outsmarted the general populace, marveling at the food industry’s ability to meet our needs. I, in particular, still didn’t eat any fruit, and very few vegetables. They all tasted like nothing to me, and what flavor they did have paled in comparison to the explosive rush of high-fructose corn syrup. It was like choosing a Budweiser over a shot of heroin: the pleasure ratio didn’t even begin to work comparatively, even though one choice was clearly wiser.

It was a bowl of cherries that changed my life. I was in Spain, traveling up after my Portugal summer program ended, visiting the family of the Spanish girl who was about to come live with us as an exchange student. They were incredibly wealthy, and took me to their “rustic” country home, a gem overlooking perfect hills and a glorious swimming pool. After a great lunch, they handed me a bowl of cherries, and beseeched me to eat some.

I had never gotten the appeal of cherries. My mom went crazy every time she found them in the store, buying huge bags, but whenever I ate one, it just tasted cold and slightly sour, almost the ghost of a taste. How could my beloved cherry Kool-Aid and Blow Pops have descended from the neutered flavor of this little fruit? And what made my mom love them so much?

I had to eat some of my hosts’ cherries, if only to be polite, so I stuck mine in my mouth and tried to quickly get down what I assumed would be its sour, watery taste. Instead, an explosion of sweet and sour notes lit across my tongue.

The cherry was very good. More than that– it was incredible.

I ended up eating most of the bowl.

Back in the States, now, I’m always on the lookout for cherries, but not one I’ve tasted has even come close to the flavor of that bowl I consumed in Spain. They’re glossier, yes, and less likely to be pitted or scarred, but they mostly taste dull and watery, like they did when I was a kid. When I eat a cherry now, I’m mostly just feeding myself a memory.

This, to me, is the real problem with the state of American food, one that no one seemed to notice until it had already swept the system. When people popped their first factory-farmed cherry into their mouths, 20 or 30 years ago, they probably just assumed it was a dud: all fruits have good and bad harvests. And even when the cherries continued to be mediocre, they had the memory of a good cherry to keep them eating, and the hope that they would eat a good one again.

For my generation, however, all we grew up eating were mediocre cherries. Until I went to Spain at age 18, I never even knew what a good one tasted like– the memory hadn’t been instilled. And when there’s no memory, there’s no desire. So I avoided fruit, because fruit tasted bad. After that experience with the cherries, I came home determined to re-try all the fruits and veggies that I thought I hadn’t liked. Surprise: Most of them still didn’t taste very good. Every time I went to Europe after that, I tried to build feelings around the food, slamming down luscious fruit in the hopes that I could grow attached enough in memory to eat the crummy stuff at home. But I never did.

Moving to California has been a small miracle when it comes to fruit and vegetables. The freshness is so real– everything really comes from here, and a lot of the produce tastes like it did in Spain. All of the flavors have been turned up to eleven, and I’m understanding for the first time in my life why people like these things. Tomatoes, for example: I had always loved tomato sauce, but couldn’t understand how that tasteless vegetable (well, fruit, really) could produce such a range of flavor only when pureed to bits. Turns out I was just eating the wrong tomatoes. The ones here are piquant and bright and subtly spicy. They taste like the flavor of tomato sauce– a big difference for a food whose flavor, to me, usually resembled dirt.

Sure, there are downsides. I’ve eaten most of a box of raspberries as I write this, leaving tiny pink splotches on the keyboard, and there are some duds in its corner: this one too squishy, that one practically black. But you can tell this box hasn’t traveled from too far away: most of them are perfectly round and firm to the touch, like tiny mottled fingertips. And they taste amazing.

I worry about the kids who’ve never tasted a raspberry like these. There are a lot of them out there, probably a number of victims of the growing juvenile obesity epidemic among them. It’s hard to turn down a raspberry donut or Fruit Roll-Up for a real raspberry, because there are no guarantees with the real thing. Often, the only guarantee is that the taste will be mediocre. That, more than anything, makes me hope these local/organic farming trends will continue, that fruit will slowly drift back to the way it was.

If the memory of the taste has never been there, then the taste is impossible to cultivate. So, Californians, eat your fruit and rejoice. In this ever-changing world of food, it’s more important than ever that we build some good memories. They may end up being all we have left.

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One response to “Fruits of My Labor

  1. I was lucky enough to grow up in the PNW, where I got farm-fresh cherries (in particular) every summer. In fact, moving to Boston and having the oranges be awful was somewhat of a shock.

    I’m a member of this community support agriculture org (fullcirclefarm.com), and they’re awesome. Super fresh local produce for the win.

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