How far would you go for a banana? Probably not farther than the grocery store. But that’s because you’ve never tasted a blue ice-cream banana, or an orange-fleshed Haa Haa, or even a Popoulou (its bubblegum-pink interior has a distinct apple flavor). There are tens of thousands of fruits that never make it to our supermarkets. There’s also a subculture of devoted fruit enthusiasts who’ve spent their lives traveling around the globe in search of undiscovered delicacies. And then there are the drug smugglers who do shit like fill juice boxes with liquid heroin and try to ship them through the Port of Miami.
Here are just 15 fruity tidbits about fruits...
FIVE AMAZING FRUITS YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
1. THE PARADISE NUT—The paradise nut, or sapucaia, is a Brazilian fruit pod that looks just like a bran muffin. It’s brown and woody and feels like it was baked in a buttered tray at 350 degrees for two hours too long. In season, the muffins grow packed with a half-dozen seeds shaped like orange segments. At ripeness, these burst through the base, scattering on the ground. Impatient young monkeys sometimes punch into an unripe muffin and wrap their fingers around a fistful of nuts. Because their cognitive faculties are not developed enough to understand that extracting their paws requires letting go of the nuts, they end up dragging their sapucaia handcuffs around for miles.
2. THE LADY FRUIT—The coco-de-mer, or lady fruit, is easily the sexiest fruit in the plant kingdom. Its risqué shell is a life-size simulacrum of the female reproductive region, including hips, an exposed midriff, two thighs, and a pudendal cleft—complete with a tuft of alarmingly lifelike hair on the mons pubis. From the back, it bears a striking resemblance to a woman’s derrière. Visitors to the Seychelles call it the pubic fruit, the lewd fruit, or the butt nut. The immature fruit contains a luscious custard-like flesh beneath its salacious exterior. Until the 1970s, distinguished visitors were sometimes honored with a taste of the coco-de-mer’s transluscent jelly, then known as “the billionaire’s fruit.” These days, the fruit is endangered, making it even harder to taste. The only legal way to sample it is to find someone who will share it with you, because buying it could cost you two years in prison. It’s literally a forbidden fruit.
3. THE BUSH MANGO OF CAMEROON—Cameroonians consume medicinal plants the way Westerners use Advil or Nyquil. The majaimainjombe, or blood-of-an-animal plant, is used as a pain reliever. The oil palm counteracts everything from measles to hernias. The bush mango is said to produce Y chromosomes, so members of the Ebu and Bayangi tribes eat it before procreating in order to have male children. When I was at the Limbe Botanical Gardens, my guide, Benjamin, and his wife, Doris, had three children—all girls. Hadn’t he used bush mango? “Traditions differ,” he explained. “We don’t eat it where I come from.” In a strange twist, British scientists recently determined that what a woman eats at the time of conception can affect the sex of her child. Women who skip morning-after breakfasts have lower glucose levels, heightening the chance of a female baby. So if you want a boy, eat fruits—ideally Cameroonian bush mangos.
4. THE NIPPLE FRUIT—Many fruits are named for their ribald aspects: tit-of-Venus peaches, women’s-breast apples, and maiden’s-flesh pears. Buttocks, balls, bosoms, thighs, fingers, and other body parts have long been employed as names for different cultivars. The udder-shaped nipple fruit, also known as the titty fruit, is an egg-size orange freakazoid covered in nipple-like nobules. Its Latin binomial is Solanum mammosum, but it’s also sometimes called the Apple of Sodom. It’s poisonous, so don’t eat it unless you are a shaman. I thought you could only find them in South American rain forests, but I recently saw some nipple fruits for sale in mixed bouquets at a florist’s in Montreal.
5. THE MIRACLE FRUIT—A small red berry the size of a pinkie tip or a small olive, the miracle fruit has a miraculous effect on the palate: It makes all acidic foods taste sweet. It coats taste buds in a liquid that, for approximately one hour, alters our perception of all sour foods. After eating a miracle fruit, pickles taste like honey. Lemons become deliriously, ecstatically sweet. Vinegar tastes like cream soda. It’s nature’s NutraSweet. Its active ingredient is called “miraculin,” and it was banned by the FDA in the 1970s. When I first tasted miracle fruit six years ago, I knew there was a book to be written. They were totally unavailable then, except in a couple of fruit freaks’ backyards. In the intervening years, a former postman in Florida named Curtis “Miracle Fruit Man” Mozie found a way to ship the berries overnight, and now miracle fruits are a “flavor-tripping” trend sweeping the nation. Unknown fruits can hit the big time, but only if the right people get fixated on them.
FIVE PEOPLE WHO ARE TOTALLY OBSESSED WITH FRUIT
1. WILLIAM F. WHITMAN—Bill Whitman was the author of Five Decades With Tropical Fruit, a memoir of chasing ultraexotics. His obituary in the New York Times last year had the following headline: “Bill Whitman, 92, Is Dead; Scoured the Earth for Rare Fruit.” He’d take his family traveling around the tropics on unicycles, surfboards strapped to their backs. Villagers would come out to greet them, thinking the circus had come to town. He was so monomaniacal that, even when dementia started setting in, he still made fruit-hunting trips down the Amazon in a wheelchair.
2. “GRAFTIN’” CRAFTON CLIFT—An internationally known fruit votary, “Graftin’” Crafton Clift is a compulsive fruit grafter from Florida. Grafting is a means of propagating a plant by cutting a branch from one tree and sticking it onto the trunk of another tree. Wherever he goes, he grafts. Apparently, on one trip to Central America, all of his possessions were stolen, including his clothes. Undeterred, he trekked naked through forests for weeks, living on jungle fruits. His colleagues describe him as someone who “walks through the world in a completely naive wonderland of fruit.”
3. ROBERT PALTER—A scholar who was part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atom bomb, Robert Palter is the author of 2002’s The Duchess of Malfi’s Apricots, and Other Literary Fruits. His book attempts to catalogue every instance a fruit is mentioned in a book, poem, song, film, painting, or other work of art. The task proved impossible to complete, so he ended his 850-page anthology without any punctuation—as a sign of its open-endedness. Long after publication, he still couldn’t stop finding fruit episodes. As he put it in an unpublished reminiscence called My Big Fruit Book: “Involuntarily, and even against my conscious intentions, I persist in scanning for fruit in everything I encounter in the way of print and pictures.”
4. DAVID FAIRCHILD—America’s greatest fruit hunter. Self-described “fruit bat.” Responsible for bringing more than 20,000 plants into the United States, including varieties of mangos, cherries, dates, and nectarines. David Fairchild (1869-1954) embarked on a series of global fruit adventures documented in memoirs like Exploring for Plants, Garden Islands of the Great East, and The World Was My Garden. When shipwrecked in Celebes, he came across one of fruitdom’s great rarities: a hardened coco-pearl formed inside a coconut the way pearls form inside oysters.
5. FRANK MEYER—Best known for his discovery of the Meyer lemon, Frank Meyer spent a good chunk of the early 20th century chasing fruits through Asian dust storms, across frozen mountains, and in virgin forests. He visited many places that had never seen a white man, let alone such a large, strapping beefcake. He was often asked to ripple his muscles; crowds would gather to watch him bathe. In some areas, natives were so afraid of the hulking foreign demon that the only way to placate them was by sitting down and eating fruit to show that he was just like them. He disappeared from the deck of a steamer crossing between Wuhan and Nanjing on the night of June 1, 1918.
FIVE WAYS TO SMUGGLE DRUGS WITH FRUIT
1. LORD OF THE SKY—Fruit hunters can get so spastic about the objects of their desire that they’ll break laws to procure rarities. Some of these fruit smugglers end up in prison or being surprised by government officials who raid their greenhouses with attack dogs and machine guns. While researching fruit smugglers, I learned that part of the reason for government crackdowns on fruit smuggling in recent years is that massive quantities of drugs come into North America inside fruit shipments. In the 1990s, the Juárez drug cartel headed by Amado Carrillo Fuentes brought in tons of drugs each month on fruit-carrying 18-wheelers and 727 airplanes (for which Fuentes became dubbed the “Lord of the Sky”).
2. GO FOR DATES—Richard Stratton spent eight years in prison for running a global marijuana-smuggling ring. He’s written about the drug trade in books like Smack Goddess and Altered States of America and for programs like Showtime’s Street Time. His method of choice was dates. His proudest moment involved bringing 15 tons of Middle Eastern hash into America inside cartons of Iraqi dates. Despite intense scrutiny by customs officials, he managed to get the hash in. USDA inspectors, however, seized all the dates—because they were harboring pests. As Stratton puts it, “The infestation rate was too high.”
3. COLOMBIAN BANANAS—Bananas have a storied legacy as psychotropic accessories. Everyone from Donovan to the Dead Milkmen smoked banana peels. In 1997, seven Chiquita banana ships were stopped containing more than a ton of cocaine. Notorious Colombian drug baron Alberto Orlandez-Gamboa had shipped hard drugs into New York within sewn-up banana skins. In 2005, he was given a 40-year jail sentence. Around the same time Orlandez-Gamboa entered his guilty plea, another Colombian banana outfit was busted: Kristel Foods had $35 million worth of coke stashed in their banana crates.
4. KING OF THE TRAILERS—Fruit trucks carry more than drugs: They are also used to smuggle human immigrants across borders. In 2007, immigration agents in Huixtla, Mexico, were tipped off by the smell of human sweat when searching an 18-wheeler full of bananas. They found 94 people hiding among the fruit crates. The bust revealed that Carlos César Ferrera, the “King of the Trailers,’’ had been overseeing a network of hundreds of trucks carrying human cargo. Ferrera would approach truckers and ask whether for a fee of $5,000 to $10,000 they’d be willing to carry what he called a “heavier load of bananas.”
5. FRUIT PULP—If whole fruits feel too sketchy, you can always try processed fruits. Cans of passion fruit are a preferred option, as are juice boxes. In November 2004, a shipment of Hit fruit-drink cartons containing $1.7 million of liquefied heroin was seized in Miami. In the summer of 2007, police uncovered $38 million worth of cocaine at the Port of Montreal. When I heard the report on the radio, I turned up the volume, certain that fruits were implicated. Sure enough, the reporter then mentioned that the drugs were found in buckets of frozen mango pulp.
Adam Gollner’s new book, The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession, is out now from Scribner. For more on the fruit underworld, visit www.thefruithunters.com.