Book Review: The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner

It is a possibly well-established fact that I love weird monographs from people with a single-minded focus on bizarre things, like salt, or dyes, candy, or pepper. I adore the dedication and thoroughness they sink into these projects, their fervor and desire to get the rest of the world as excited as they are, and I learn a lot along the way — though be warned, such texts are not necessarily fact checked and definitely aren’t peer reviewed, so before relying on the information they contain, double check to make sure it’s accurate and not a flight of fancy or piece of misinformation. Adam Leith Gollner’s The Fruit Hunters is an example of just the sort of book I absolutely love in this genre, and I unabashedly recommend it.

This book is wildly enthusiastic. It’s a little bit frenzied, but that’s part of what appeals to me so much: He bounces from place to place and subject to subject, taking you along for a wild ride that tips you up one way and down the other as you scrabble to keep up. He clearly loves fruit, loves talking about fruit, loves meeting up with people who love fruit as much as he does, and he wants to bequeath that love to his readers. It’s not just about documenting the fruits of the world, but also the subculture that goes with them, and entreating the reader to get sucked in.

The inspiration for The Fruit Hunters started when, as a journalist, he got interested in fruit culture and worked with his editor on a piece about the people who travel the world in search of fruit. They’re looking for the most flavourful, the unique, the forbidden, the off-beat. They’re smuggling things from here to there, bringing in seeds and cuttings, chasing the next great trend. These people are totally immersed in fruit, down to frutarians, people who subsist on nothing other than fruit — and in at least a few cases, primarily on durian, as some of the people he interviewed did.

As often happens in journalism, what started as a single piece about a phenomenon that might interest or amuse readers blossomed into something completely out of control. He started going to fruit events, chasing down leaders in the fruit field, hitting up farms, and eventually sinking into the rabbit hole of traveling the world to taste things in situ for himself after being told that their counterparts on US soil just didn’t hold up. And along the way, he was seduced by fruit, brought in to a magical world filled with amazing and delicious things. The result is this hectic, heady, intoxicating book.

From the text, he reminds me of someone I sit next to at dinner who, almost unbidden, starts going on at length about a subject of fascination, not even realizing that I’m there after a certain point, just getting so deeply enthused that soup starts splurting onto my shirt and he completely ignores the waiter politely asking if he’s ready for the next course. He’s so enthused, though, that it’s hard not to get into it with him — I started frantically jotting down fruit names and countries of origin, tracing the lines on my globe, wondering if I could justify a trip here, a stopover there, to taste things. Some of these fruits I’ve never even heard of, although they sound completely amazing and I want to devour them all. Others I know by sight and sometimes flavour (or smell, I’m looking at you, durian and jackfruit), but I’d like to taste them in their home countries and environs, because I know he’s right: What we get here isn’t comparable.

This isn’t a hipster comment on the nature of fruit, but rather a cold and honest assessment. Fruit has evolved to be eaten directly off the tree or the earth below. Good fruit, at its peak, is remarkably fragile, and that’s what makes it so delicious. That tenderness, that sweetness, that aroma, these are things that just don’t travel well. So breeders develop hardier fruits, but what they gain in shippability, they lose in flavour and texture. That’s why store peaches are grainy and lack so much perfume, while the ones you pick at the farm stand are amazing and stellar. It’s why commercial apples taste so bland. Some fruits are even frozen before shipment (like durian) so they’ll keep longer, which totally compromises the fruit and makes it such a far cry from its origins that it might as well be an entirely different food.

The Fruit Hunters documents the people who travel the world specifically to eat fruit where it’s meant to be eaten, who breed it at home, who hold conferences and events in celebration of fruit. It’s a totally fascinating subculture, and as is frequently the case with people dedicated to a singleminded cause, some of the people he interviews are deeply, seriously weird. I’m not talking about the people who eat ten durians at a sitting or are involved in multigenerational hunts for buried treasure, even, believe it or not.

You’ll want to read this book for its sheer oddity and flood of information, but also because it genuinely documents very real people and their lives, along with the fruit they basically live for. Additionally, it’s going to inspire a long list of things you want to eat, along with travel destinations, so you may want to consider keeping a bowl of fruit handy while you read.

Image: Red fruits, Zdenko Zivkovik, Flickr