Perfume, Biodiversity and the Importance of Names

One thing about commercial fruit is that the quality is generally dismal. And that’s a shame because fruit is meant to be seductive. Its scent should lure birds and beasts who will eat it and leave seeds, and stones to germinate and eventually flourish. But fruit should lure in human beasts as well. A floral, white peach is one of the most seductive fruits imaginable – “It’s like eating a flower!” a young girl told me after her first bite. Kids cannot be kept away from ripe strawberries or cherries. When I watch people buy fruit at the supermarket, I notice that they just drop it into a plastic bag without taking a whiff, but it’s the smell that tells you whether a fruit has promise, is over the hill, or is not worth bothering about. Industrial strength fruit, picked green from tasteless varieties, offers nothing. This has turned fruit into a “duty food”, something we eat because the government tells us to, not because we can’t stay away from it.

Thankfully this is not true at the farmers market where you can actually follow the scent of strawberries and where bees might be hovering around the peaches. If the farmers haven’t tried to rush their season by picking fruit that’s not yet ready (note to farmers: no one wants an unripe plum!) but have waited until the right moment, then there’s fruit worth talking about! We will buy good fruit because it’s that rare and that compelling. Another frustrating thing fruit is its lack of distinction in the naming department. There are hundreds of varieties of plums, but what do we see? Red plums and black plums. Plums can be blue, violet, yellow, gold, purple, green, black, red and all shades in between. They will have unique flavors and different uses in the kitchen. And they all have names: Coe’s Golden Drop, Pearl, Green Gage, Mirabelle. The same is pretty much true of all fruits. While we’ve learned the distinctions among vegetables and now know the names of our favorites, we’re behind with fruit. And this relates directly to biodiversity, because when plums are reduced to red and black, what happens to the others? They disappear, just as hundreds of apple varieties have disappeared and those of many other fruits as well. Names matter because if we don’t know what to call a something we can’t make a relationship to it and ask for it again. The taste may have been fantastic, but without a name it is completely ephemeral. How do you ask for that peach you loved the year before? “It was round, and reddish, it was really good, it was juicy …” It will take a great deal of specifics, probably not remembered, to lead you back to the source. A name is much more efficient. “Do you have any Babcoks, or that great Suncrest you had last year?” Much easierRyan Sun Peach.

To make a more repeatable universe and encourage diversity rather than sameness, I encourage shoppers to ask the names of the foods we buy at the farmers market, then try to remember them and use them. And the farmers can help enormously by posting the names. I know many farmers view this as an unnecessary chore, but I feel it’s important because it makes us a more literate, well-informed society about the good foods we eat. And an informed society is one that is likely to speak up for and protect biodiversity because it means something. Imagine not having those little shishito peppers you’ve come to love. Then apply that feeling to whatever else your love in the market. Not that many generations back our ancestors (this would include my botanist father), knew very well about the pleasures and distinctions of different apples, pears, grapes and other fruits as they fussed over their own cultivars, traded scions, or made trips each year to a particular orchard. We need to regain that knowledge and cultivate a passion for it if we don’t want to see the variety that sustains life and makes it so delicious disappear. I hear it’s going to be a good fruit year, and that’s good news!

19 comments to Perfume, Biodiversity and the Importance of Names

  • NMPatricia

    Several things to think about. Maybe here are a few. Maybe the reason many people in the supermarket don’t smell the fruit is that there is rarely a smell. Why look for something that is not there? If one doesn’t shop at a Farmer’s Market or use a CSA, one might not expect ever to find a scent. Never thought of learning names before because never thought of a reason. Often, I am just glad to be able to have wonderful food. I really don’t care about the name. I am grateful for the earth’s bounty. Do you suppose by the sheer demand at Farmers’ Markets will provide fruit – any and all wonderful fruit?

    • Patricia – Yes, that’s exactly why people don’t smell fruit – there isn’t any smell and people have learned, over the past few generations, not to look for what isn’t there. But what could be there is so much better than what isn’t and is so worth looking for that I believe once people experience it, they’ll just want more of it. I think the demand has to be like raindrops: one at a time and relentless over time. But soon, hopefully. Like this summer. We have to educate ourselves about such fundamentals as names and language. Farmers markets as well as CSAs and farm stands and orchard stands seem to be our best bets, and some co-ops too, because they are about local. Supermarkets, even so called “natural” ones, are not, although there are a few (very rare) exceptions. Be demanding(but nice) and just to be on the safe side, grow something of your own if you can. It truly changes your world.

  • Ali

    I’ve been thinking about this over the last hour and realize what an important point you make (and one that doesn’t seem to be made too often, even here in hyper-locavore Portland!). Your post brings to mind vividly some plums I tasted over 20 years ago while working at a farm stand. They were oddly shaped and there weren’t enough of them to sell-one of the farm workers brought them to us in a little basket to try. They were one of the best things I’d ever tasted but as an oblivious teenager I took for granted that they’d be around forever. But, of course, I moved, the farm closed, and I never did find out the variety, which I now regret. At the time the idea that one day I might want to plant my own plum tree never crossed my mind.

    • Ali – What an interesting story. Thank you for sharing it.
      I’ll bet you’re not the only one with such a tale, whether experienced as an oblivious teenager or
      even as an oblivious adult. We do tend to think foods (and farmers) will be around forever, it’s true.
      What kind of plum tree will you plant?

  • Judy Olsen

    As usual Deborah, you are always thinking ahead of the curve. I could not agree more with your comments.
    I, personally, happen to be not much of a fruit person in general leaning more towards veggies. I think it is because of the lack of ‘over the top seductiveness’ as you put it. I remember in Maui, not being able to get enough fruit – because it was so amazing there. I gorged on the local stuff – and yes, it had aroma, sweetness, sticky, juiciness…. all of it. and I can still remember eating it.
    One thing that occurred to me as I was reading your comments about varieties etc and getting to know them; it seems to me that this has occurred in wine grape vineyards. We all know about our interesting varietals, and sometimes there is even great awareness placed on particular clones (which can be DNA identified) grown in certain vineyards or regions. Why should we not be duplicating this with our fruit varieties?????
    Keep up the good thinking!

    • Hi Judy. So you were a fruit person when the fruit was good in Maui!!
      Interesting point you made about how we’ve gotten to know grape varietals through knowing wines.
      Indeed, we’ve become very discerning on this front, but even so, there are all kinds of very interesting wine grapes that are never seen anymore in wines because they’ve been replaced by cabernet and merlot. When I drank some native varietals in Greece a few years ago I found that they were not like anything else I knew, but were utterly unique and just a pleasure to drink. (And very good with the food.) It’s sad to think it takes a few independent wine makers to keep them alive. But I digress from your question about cloning. Perhaps we should be cloning the DNA of our fruit varieties but we also need to be eating them so that there will be a demand for those clones and that they aren’t just something to be saved. Probably both are needed, but I’d hope that more than a few plant people would care passionately about Ali’s misshapen plum with oh such good flavor!

  • What a thoughtful post! Your peach picture reminded me of one of my favorite peach varieties here in the Pacific Northwest, the “Sweet Sue”. Deliciously sweet and perfectly ‘peachy’. Do you have them where you are?
    At our market we will be getting “Hood” strawberries soon in the next few weeks! I can’t wait to pick up my first pint of spring berries and eat the whole thing in the sunshine. What a perfect plan for a spring day. Until then, rhubarb jam, tarts, and galettes it is!
    Thank you, Deborah for your inspiration and food stories. Happy Market days!

  • Nicolette – I don’t know “Sweet Sue”, but I’d like to! I’ve heard about your “Hood” strawberries, though, and hope they’ll be ready to taste when I’m in Portland next week. I hear they are amazing. Just tasted some superb “Sequoias” in California last week- I love that we all have our special, regional varieties.

  • Amy

    Were the Sequoias any good? I have to admit I just planted some in my garden but I’ve never actually tasted that variety (at least not that I know of).

  • Deborah, I’m still chewing over, and appreciating, the distinction you’re making between local fruit and local vegetables (most recently at Culinate, I think.) We’ve been working toward more local, more seasonal eating for years now, as a family, and it always galls me a little to buy imported vegetables in the cold months (in Washington, and now Ohio). But so it is, in Northern states, when even greens and roots are often from California. That said, I’ve long respected the seasonality of nightshades and stone fruits and berries, buying only when they’re at their peak, in our backyard. I could never work out my fickle standards, acting on instinct more than reason. But you’ve helped me understand my own standards, that these are precisely the plants that suffer so much under shipping. And that the broccolis and kales of this world fend better, even if they would taste better still from a local farm. As a mother of three, it can seem almost absurd, denying my kids the berries they’re lunging for during our grocery shops. And yet, we have this dialogue, this ongoing conversation, about when these things ripen where we live, how exquisite they taste, how the juice dribbles. And we wait. And each year, it gets better, and we eat the berries until we are full to bursting. And it’s all worth it.

    • Molly – Good comment. And what good news that it gets a little better each year in the fruit department where you live. Some times change seems so slow
      and incremental, but moving in a forward direction nonetheless. Are you able to plant some strawberries in a strawberry pot for your kids?

  • Deborah,

    I was really pleased to see you have Paw Paw recipe in your new cookbook! I want to try it just for the adventure of it. Although, have to figure out where to find a Paw Paw in New England. I suppose ordering one to be shipped to me kind of defeats the eating local purpose…

    • Kendra —it’s hardly a recipe —one just eats it for starters—but if you had hundreds of pawpaws, or pawpaws coming out
      your ears, there are lots of things you could use a pawpaw puree for. I hope you come across one. The midwest is where you’re
      most likely to find them, though. Good luck!

  • […] better job of remembering them by name and knowing which is which.  Deborah Madison recently had a blog post that discussed the importance of names – she p0inted out that if you discover an especially lucious type of peach its a lot easier […]

  • frelkins

    Hi Deborah – I was just reading a page on Zaiger Genetics’ website. Everyone knows Zaiger as the place where so many fantastic fruit varieties originate. My favorite is the nectaplum.

    But anyway, this page noted that a study of people under 30 showed that they refused what ripe fruit – soft, juicy, with a perfume. They’ve grown up on hard, unripe supermarket fruit their mother’s stuffed into their school backpacks.

    Thus they find what the melting peaches older people long for disgusting – “mushy” is what the study found. They found sticky juice repulsive.

    This really saddened me. Combined with other studies – such those that show most people nowadays consider “cooking” to be reheating store-bought chicken or frozen foods – I’m afraid of the world we are growing into in which, despite the gains of the food movement, mass consumer habits force us more and more into tasteless, processed foods.

    How will this beautiful movement we have devoted so much to as consumers and seekers of wonderful hand-crafted local organic food survive in the next generation?

    • Frelkins —thank you so much for this comment. I’m not surprised by these dismaying findings, unfortunately. They certainly speak to how culture around food is changed such developments as industrial fruit. This is exactly why we have to get good food, especially fruit, into schools and the mouths of babes.
      Thank you for sharing this study and your thoughts.

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