The English word for “fruit” is derived from the Latin fruor, “to delight in,” and fructus, meaning “enjoyment.” In his first book, The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner embraces this etymology: he clearly revels in the rich pageantry of life, seeing the world as a sort of Garden of Earthly Delights. He is intoxicated by his subject: “In fruits, there’s always something newer, better or rarer. It’s the pursuit of infinity” (87).
Lyrically written and brimming with an infectious enthusiasm, The Fruit Hunters is written with the layperson in mind. Even so, there is an encyclopaedic knowledge of culture, history, and esoterica that has gone into the writing of this book, and there are plenty of leads an academic could follow.
Like any good food writing, The Fruit Hunters uses food as a prism to refract the white light of human experience. Gollner’s book is really a celebration of diversity, both botanical and human, and the intense (and evolving) connection between fruits and those who grow and gather them.
Of the hundreds of thousands of fruiting plant species that grow on earth, some 80,000 may be edible. As one fruit hunter remarks to Gollner, “As long as we have any forests left at all, we will find new fruits. Give us a few centuries to cultivate these things and they’re going to be very different” (71). The world of fruit is always changing.
But is it improving? On the one hand, it has never been easier to eat fruit from far away: it’s eternal summer in the supermarket. We eat far more fresh fruit than our ancestors ever ate. (And we preserve far less.) As Gollner writes, “never before have so many of us had access to such a wide range of fresh fruits, whether novelties or heirlooms. And the produce section will be getting even more interesting in coming years as innovative breeders and growers continue to focus on flavour and as shoppers rediscover seasonality” (54).
Even so, the majority of the world’s food comes from about 20 crops. Like so many other aspects of modern life, fruits have become commoditized and standardized. Gollner is at his most interesting when he examines the reasons behind this shift, whether they are social, economic or geo-political. He writes about the miracle fruit, a small berry that changes the way you perceive taste: for a few hours after it has been ingested, even vinegar and pickles taste sweet. At one time, it was poised to revolutionize the American food industry, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use in the 1960s—perhaps because it was seen as a threat to Big Sugar.
Gollner also notes that many fruit varieties are disappearing from the table. We are living in an era of mass extinction: the world is losing an estimated 17,500 species every year. Ever the balanced writer, he also points out that extinction is a natural phenomenon: 99.9 percent of species that have lived on earth are now extinct.
Today, fruits are more commonly bred for industry’s needs, rather than for aesthetic desires, and only a handful of species serve industry’s purposes. The quality of the fruit we consume has been steadily decreasing: we now eat what Gollner calls “Stepford fruits.” We have only ourselves to blame. Most of us prefer convenience to taste: we want to be able to buy our fruit 24/7, 365 days a year. Gollner cites studies that have shown 65 percent of consumers would prefer to buy their apples sliced rather than whole (154): biting into that fruit—an act that Pablo Neruda once wrote makes us young again—has somehow become a chore.
Grapples—those newfangled, trademarked apples that taste mysteriously like concord grapes—seem like the poster child of the modern fruit industry. Recently I attended an Agri-Innovation Forum. A participant asked futurist Richard Worzel whether farming was a sunset or a sunrise industry in Canada. Worzel replied that it will be a sunrise industry for those farmers who can bring “added value” to their crops: spraying apples with a pesticide that tastes like concord grapes, for example, and then charging more money for these Grapples. How else can North American farmers compete with the cheaper fruit coming out of China? Gollner is sympathetic to the plight of Gary Snyder, the Grapple’s creator: “as our foods have become standardized commodities, producers like Snyder are merely giving retailers what they demand: homogeneity.”
At issue is a question of values: why do we not assign more value to the taste of the food we eat? Why do we prefer the eternal (though tasteless) summer of the rockhard supermarket peach to the fragrant juiciness of a sun-warmed Red Haven or our grandmother’s canned peaches, put up on the August long weekend?
As Gollner notes, the commodification of fruit is a shame: fruits are meant to be ephemeral. When was the last time we really tasted a strawberry? Chances are it was in June, and the berries were local. With urbanization and industrialization, we have become detached from our food sources. We’ve forgotten that strawberries have a season, and that the best apricots are those we pluck from the tree.
Perhaps the greatest strength of The Fruit Hunters is its clarion call to readers, to invite them to follow in Gollner’s fruit-hunting footsteps, and to shake off the shackles of a tasteless, commoditized and industrial food system. “All fruits have a peak of deliciousness,” writes Gollner, “but finding that perfection is next to impossible, unless we join the ranks of the fruit hunters” (212).
Sasha Chapman is a columnist for the Globe & Mail and Toronto Life. In her spare time, she likes to scrump. (If you don't know what that means, you'll have to read The Fruit Hunters to find out.)