The Fruit Hunters
At the center of Adam Leith Gollner’s The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession lies a strange truth: although there are tens of thousands of edible and delicious fruits growing around the world, the relatively wealthy and sophisticated grocery shopper in North America typically returns again and again to the same twenty or thirty. Worldwide, according to the United Nations, the most widely consumed fruits are bananas and plantains, apples, citrus fruits, grapes, and mangoesfoods that, save perhaps for the mangoes, would not alarm the most incurious and conservative eater. What of more exotic fare? People in the developed world eat mountains of strawberries, but what about the “crackleberry, whimberry, bababerry, bearberry, salmonberry, raccoon berry, rockberry, honeyberry, nannyberry, white snowberry and berryberry”? As a self-avowed fruit obsessive, Gollner attempts in this book to describe his pursuit of the world’s tastiest and most legendary fruits, and of the menthey are mostly menwho grow, smuggle, trade, graft, sell, and market them.
Like Walt Whitman’s poetry, The Fruit Hunters is full of lists, bits of trivia, short anecdotes, and an earthy fascination with sex. There is no central narrative arc. Instead, the book reads like an accumulation of facts and ideas acquired here and there, at this time and that, with subtle repeated threads that might signal authorial control or something more fascinating: the slightly untamable mind of the true fruit obsessive. To bring some order to this material salad, Gollner has organized the volume into four sections“Nature,” “Adventure,” “Commerce,” and “Obsession”though each section borrows freely from the others. The result is a cheerful, energetic account.
“Nature” introduces, among countless other things, two fruits that will stand in this book as emblems for what Gollner’s readers are missing: the mangosteen and the durian. Gollner finds his first mangosteen, “known as the queen of fruits in Southeast Asia,” in the Chinatown section of Montreal, and it quickly becomes one of his favorites. As he will do throughout the book, he struggles to describe its taste: “I could say that it tastes like minty raspberry-apricot sorbet, but the only way to truly know a mangosteen is to try one.” Although mangosteens are commonly available in Chinese markets in Canada, Gollner learns only after he has brought an assortment of Chinatown fruits as a gift for a friend in New York that they are illegal in the United States. As Gollner and the reader will learn, several fruits are illegal to import; many of the laws have to do with transporting pests but many others have only political and commercial origins, and smuggling fruit is big business.
The durian is introduced in “Nature,” but its full story is not told until the second section, “Adventure.” Although its flesh is sweet and delicious, the fruit emits a strong odor that “has been compared to rotting fish, stale vomit, unwashed socks, old jockstraps, low-tide seaweed,” and other equally appealing things. The smell is so strong that when Gollner and a friend hosted a durian-tasting party in a New York apartment building, other tenants evacuated and called the gas company. No wonder durians are banned in many public spaces throughout Asia. In the most extended narrative in the book, Gollner travels to Borneo to sample the twenty-seven species of durian that grow there, and he finds a fruit-lover’s paradise, with an assortment of obsessed fruit hunters, including the botanist Voon Boon Hoe. The author discovers that trekking through the jungle to find fruit is less effective than visiting a village market at the edge of the jungle; at one visit to a market in Kuching, he eats “dukus, rambutans, soursops, mangosteens, and durians.” Gollner next travels to Bangkok on his way to the islands in southern Thailand where he meets a group of raw foodistspeople who consume only raw fruit and raw meatsliving idyllically in bungalows on the beach on the island of Koh Phangan. Next he visits a community of fruitarians, who eat only fruit, and digresses to offer a survey of the history, religious symbolism, nutrition, and botany of fruit.
Gollner’s next quest is for the legendary “lady fruit,” whose shell looks remarkably like the female anatomy and which is said to be the “fruit from which women originate.” Researching in Montreal, Gollner learns that the fruit is actually named the coco-de-mer, that it is endangered, and that it grows only in the Seychelles. His journey to the valley...
(The entire section is 1885 words.)