Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: "The Fruit Hunters"

I'm sort of a fruit fanatic, so Adam Leith Gollner's The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession (Scribner) was a must-read for me. In the wake of other history/memoir/culinary travelogue books like those about salt, bananas, honey, &c., Gollner takes up the scrumptious topic of fruits (in all their mind-boggling variety). He visits tropical markets in search of delights we poor temperate Americans don't often have the pleasure of trying, profiles "rare fruit enthusiasts" from around the world, and offers up short capsule histories of fruit consumption, cultivation, and commodification. His cast of characters includes some members of fruit cults, a fruit detective, fruitarians (including the various splinter groups) and even Thomas Jefferson.

Gollner's quite critical of the modern fruit industry, calling our insipid grocery store offerings "Stepford fruits" and declaring "we're eating the shrapnel of a worldwide homogeneity bomb." Which, of course, we are. We want our fruits to be unbruised and long-lasting, and many of the best varieties simply don't travel well. Queen Victoria famously offered a knighthood to the person who could bring her a fresh mangosteen; Victoria never got to award that honor. A fresh mangosteen would probably be possible today, but it would still be costly (but if Gollner's to be believed, it might be worth it!). He also critiques some modern marketing techniques (but praises others, like those for the kiwi, the cranberry and the now-in-vogue "heirloom fruits") and weird projects (including the development of Grapples, an apple 'injected' with grape flavoring which sounds positively atrocious to me).

Having taste-tested many of the strange fruits he describes, Gollner is near his best when writing about those experiences. The smell of one particular durian, he writes, is like "undercooked peanut butter-mint omelets in body-odor sauce" (yum?). Most of them sound much better than that, I promise - reading this book made me hypercritical even of the comparatively tasty pears and plums I was snacking on at the time.

A hunger-inducing book, with an important message about what we eat and why. Well worth a read.