As a child, my nosebleeds were a common problem. My parents, citing traditional Chinese medicine, blamed all the fruits I ate that gave me “excessive heat” — especially the lychees, my favorite. It didn’t stop me from gobbling them down by the dozens, pretending each was a succulent eyeball. Lychees were becoming more difficult to find after we moved from China to a suburb in Quebec City. When we would drive to Montreal’s Chinatown to shop for groceries, I’d scan all the produce flats, looking for my red jewels.
As I’ve grown older, my fixation on exotic fruit has intensified — the weirder, the better. Canada’s fruit market is mostly imported, especially in the winter months. This is the reality of being an armchair pomologist. There is a silver lining to this situation: almost everything I see in my local grocery stores is exotic and interesting. Maybe it’s a finger-shaped lime with juice vesicles that look like caviar; maybe it’s a ham-hued pineapple, engineered by Del Monte to be Instagrammed. It doesn’t matter if a fruit is natural or genetically modified, beautiful or misshapen; I am an equal-opportunity sampler.
Experimenting with new fruits enriches my knowledge and enriches the experience of living in it. Just when I think I have a solid grasp on the spectrum of natural aromas, a fruit like the lulo (a nightshade that resembles a tomato and is known in Spanish as a “little orange” but tastes like neither) appears at my favorite cheese boutique and undermines the whole system. I bought a couple to make cocktails with — a common usage for the fruit in its native South America — and marveled at its remarkable redolence, which perfumed my whole kitchen for days. Part pineapple limeade, part rhubarb-flavored gummy, it’s a scent so neon I’d rather believe it was plucked from a food scientist’s imagination than accept that this unicorn fruit just happens to grow in some people’s backyards.
Or take the Oro Blanco (“white gold”) grapefruit, a product of the Citrus Experiment Station at the University of California, Riverside. The Oro Blanco was created as a cross between a grapefruit and a pomelo. It retains the sweetness of grapefruit without the bitter edge and the floral sweetness without the thick, woolly pith. I was astonished at the creativity and ingenuity of the human race when I first encountered an Oro Blanco. (And in equal measures, our hubris. The one I sampled was ambrosial and diametrically opposed to the anemic citruses I’m used to, which tend to be picked before their time and left to ripen slowly under grocery-store fluorescents. It had a sweetness I wasn’t sure I’d earned.
There’s a line in a Jack Gilbert poem that has inhabited a nook in my brain since I was a teenager. “What lasted is what the soul ate,” he wrote in “The Spirit and the Soul.” “The way a child knows the world by putting it/part by part into his mouth.” I think of these lines often when I prepare to eat a new fruit. Each tasting is a chance for me to reconnect with my inner child. These people are equally talented at naming these fruits, with simple names that are both charming and easy to remember. Cotton candy grapes. Ice cream bean. Dragonfruit. Tell me these names aren’t the work of a captivated 6-year-old.
Some astronauts report experiencing the “overview effect,” a sense of mental clarity and connectedness to humankind that overcomes them when they look down at Earth from space. I feel that at a cellular and cellular level when i pick up a mangosteen, which is a celestial-purple orb with an attached flower-stem cap. It is so cute that it begs to be anthropomorphized. You will find a pillowy white interior with oneiric texture, taste and aromas of pineapple, strawberry and lychee. The experience is as expansive as seeing the ocean or hearing the Chopin nocturne. You catch yourself wondering what else this world has been hiding, what staggering beauty it’s capable of.
Most fruits I only try a couple times because I am an incorrigible Neophile. But there’s one I keep returning to: the soursop, a member of the Annonaceae family and relative of the cherimoya and pawpaw. It looks like a spiny reptile curled up into itself or a prehistoric football from the outside. It splits like flesh — with a hand on each half you feel violent, as though you’re tearing through ligaments — but spoons like custard. The soursop is a delicious combination of banana, strawberry, papaya, and citrus at its best. If you wait a day, it will start to brown and emit a pungency more like feet than fruit.
Inexplicably, this rapid decaying comforts my soul. It’s not as if we’re short on reminders of mortality these days. It’s almost like witnessing the act of living, watching a beloved fruit change from starchy starches to mushy pulp. The plant sacrifices its fruit in the hope of spreading its seed. Life was always the goal. These tangible joys are to be enjoyed as they are, not preserved. Soon, we will also wake up to find our bodies softened, bruised, and smelling a little cheesy. Will we let our most precious days go by?
Tracy Wan, a Toronto writer and strategist, is the author.