On Summer Fruit

The Original Fast Food

Fruit is food.

By this I mean that the plant that produces it does so with the intention that the fruit be eaten. Leaves are not meant to be eaten—they are photosynthetic surfaces, where sunlight is converted to sugar, the sugar providing raw energy for the plant. Roots are not meant to be eaten—they draw water and nutrients up from the soil, and merge with fungus in mycorrhizal networks. Seeds are not meant to be eaten—they are the plant’s reproductive future, their children. No plant wins, evolutionarily, by having its leaves, roots, or seeds eaten. Fruit, though. Fruit wants to be eaten.

(Of course, no plant actually has intention, because a plant does not have consciousness. When discussing evolutionary systems, linguistic short-cuts such as “wants to be eaten” are a concise way of conveying adaptive outcomes. Such linguistic short-cuts can be abused, but they can also streamline communication—as is the (conscious!) intention here.)

That linguistic tangent behind us: What is fruit? Fruit is a plant’s way of enticing animals to disperse its seeds. Fruit is thus a reward for those animals. Blackberry bushes, for instance, attract birds and deer, rabbits and bears, and the blackberry bushes achieve their evolutionary goals when those animals feast on berries, wander off, and poop out the seeds, now rich with fertilizer.

Blackberry bushes also attract humans, of course. When my children were very young—they are still young, in my eyes, but can now rightly be called young men, being in the middle of their teenage years—we often went berry picking during the Summer. We knew some very good patches of blackberries along a few bike paths, another at the edge of a baseball field at an elementary school, and another in a little park that nobody else seemed to know about. 

Blackberries are hardly the only summer fruit, though. To pick blueberries, since we knew of nowhere that they grew wild, we would go to one of a few farms, some of them with crotchety old farmers who clearly wished that they didn’t have to supplement their income with u-pick operations, some of them with wide-smiling young staff who had been hired for the Summer to point us to the different varietals, weigh our berries, and at the end, take just a few dollars for our vast buckets of fruit. 

And while we never picked stone fruit direct from the trees—peaches and nectarines, plums and apricots and cherries—I had good relationships with many fine people at the farmer’s market, who knew that I would be taking home a large box of peaches every week for a while late in the Summer, and that those peaches would never go to waste.

Share

Pojar and MacKinnon is so classic a field guide that it is known simply by those authors’ names, but its actual title is Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska. In it, the authors write of the fruits eaten by pre-Colombian peoples in this region (Latin names removed for ease of reading): 

By late May and early June in the southern part of the Northwest Coast, a wide spectrum of fruits begins to ripen in succession: salmonberries and wild strawberries, followed by red elderberries, huckleberries, blueberries, blackberries, soapberries and thimbleberries, then gooseberries and currants and salal, and finally, in late summer and fall, Pacific crab apples, highbush-cranberries, bog and mountain cranberries and evergreen huckleberries.

Note both the abundance of fruits that the native peoples had to choose among, and also what is missing. There are no stone fruits in this smorgasbord of fruits, because there were not yet any stone fruits here. Peaches, for instance, evolved in China. There, in the Yangzi River Valley, they have likely been in cultivation for over 7,500 years. Exactly how and when peaches got to the New World from their origin in China is the subject of ongoing discussion, but one account suggests that peaches were transported from China through Iran, and from there to Rome around the time of Christ. Their deliciousness was so obvious, and so nearly universally appreciated, that their precise path is difficult to trace. Peaches seem to have spread through Western Europe for well over a millennium before being brought to North America in the 16th century. Peaches were apparently so popular with native Americans, and planted so widely across the South, that later European explorers assumed peaches to be native to the New World, rather than another recent immigrant like themselves.

And while there is a native blackberry in the Pacific Northwest, which people have been eating for thousands of years, the one that we mostly eat now, the one that is ubiquitous on our roadsides and in our jams, is also from far, far away. Called the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), it arrived in North America from England, but probably has its origin in India (this according to another great field guide: Cascade-Olympic Natural History).

Of course, humans aren’t native to North America either. Thirty thousand years ago there were no humans here at all, and there never had been. (This is a conservative number—most scientists find scant evidence for humans in North America 20,000 years ago, either.) Assessments of who or what is native are always relative. All of our lineages have been on this Earth for exactly the same amount of time. We all, every one of us, peaches and people, blackberries and black bears, share an origin that goes back the same several billion years.

Pojar & MacKinnon (the field guide) also has something to teach us about how fruit was preserved by native peoples:

Berries, such as salal, thimbleberries, huckleberries, blueberries and currants were often placed into a bentwood cedar box or other cooking vessel, brought to a boil with red-hot rocks and cooked to a jam-like consistency. This mixture was then poured into frames set on a base of skunk-cabbage leaves and allowed to dry into cakes. In warm weather, berries were dried individually, like raisins. Tarter fruits, such as highbush-cranberries, bog cranberries and Pacific crab apples, were often simply stored in boxes under water, sometimes mixed with oil. With time, they became softer and sweeter, and during the winter they could be taken out and eaten.

Modern people don’t tend to put our jam out to set on skunk-cabbage leaves, and many of us may imagine that we have clearly progressed in our knowledge and abilities, that the modern way is simply better. It is true that older methods require an on-going assessment—is it sweet enough? Soft enough? Dry enough? But some things are lost with modern methods. They tend to dispense with the human brain and sensory apparatus: If you can read, you can follow a recipe. Recipes can be delightful and instructive, the results produced fantastic and sometimes even fantastical. But modern recipes also lay everything out with a precision that can take the creativity and human dimension out of cooking.

Recipes, because they are static, written by a person far removed from the kitchens in which the recipe is to be followed, are inherently generic. Fruit, however, is anything but generic. Recipes have to treat all ingredients having the same name as if they are the same thing. A recipe for jam might suggest using “ten cups of blackberries,” a recipe for cobbler “three pounds of peaches.” But if it then specifies how much sweetener to add as well, it has missed a key feature of fruit. You should not be adding the same amount of sweetener to a recipe full of high-sugar peaches, as you do to one in which you are using a more tart varietal. And if your fruit is at all dull, it might warrant sprucing up with some acid—lemon juice, or vinegar. But a modern recipe will rarely tell you this, because it assumes that a peach is a peach (is a peach).

Your grandmother’s recipe though, is a far different beast than one from a cookbook or the internet. When your grandmother teaches you how to make her special jam there is a much higher likelihood that her “recipe” will include subtlety, and a responsiveness to the ingredients that static recipes can’t have. You may find value in reaching out to an older relative, and asking them if they are the keeper of any culinary traditions in which fruit is the star. If the answer is yes, you may discover something of the old, and you may also be prompted to create something brand new.

Fruit is variable, in flavor and sugar content and ripeness and readiness. Real food has terroir. Today’s blackberry will not taste identical to next week’s blackberry, especially if it didn’t just ripen at a different moment but also grew someplace different—on a westerly slope rather than an east-facing one, on a dry hill rather than at river’s edge. Fruit is not like fast food: it varies with time and space, and this is part of its charm. At the same time, fruit is the original fast food.

Jam is delicious, cobbler is fantastic, and so are crisps and pies, clafoutis and tarts, and on and on and on. But fruit just picked off the vine or the tree, still warm from the sun, eaten whole, is probably the best way of all to enjoy it. It tastes deeply of Summer. So, to everyone in the Northern hemisphere: enjoy fruit now, for Summer will not last forever.