This week in the Longer Light Series, a fruit salad essay, in content and form. In ‘Australian Fruit Salad’ Rebecca Giggs stirs together anecdotes, colloquial etymologies, pomological genuses, childhood memories and scenes from her family’s summer gathering. There is a mixture of flavours – some sections are sumptuous, some nostalgic, some bittersweet and salty, like the tide of sodden oranges floating up the Perth river. Read more
For the two weeks over the Christmas break I return to my parents’ home in Perth. Each day we peel and dice a large basin of fruit salad. Baby nephews gurgling on the living-room tiles, cousins sprawled asleep on the sofas; someone will be singing in the shower while my brother-in-law and my father take apart a bike on the verandah. A tiny knife makes exacting work.
The red ones we still avoid out of a conviction imprinted early by Disney, that they’re poisonous or enchanting (see Snow White). A crisp memory: I lost my first tooth into an apple, blood unseen on my chin. More fascinated than alarmed by the bone in the fruit, I believed the apple had grown its own teeth. Now each year the apples are heavier, glossier and more pungent, and their nutritional value diminishes. An apple today has one-third the iron of an apple grown in 1950, and its vitamin A has declined precipitously too. Yet these new apples seem more powerfully appley, more complete in their inhabitation of the defining qualities of apples: scent, crunch, shine. I’m talking here about the ones you have to eat two-handed, plucked from behind a misting veil in the supermarket. Those Snow White apples.
In 2014 an apple grower in southern Tasmania picked an apple that was half red and half green, as if it had been dipped in paint. She had planted a hybrid strain for the commercial market but this individual fruit had sorted out its genes, and poured its ancestor apples into two separate sides of itself. Apple historians and pomologists will tell you that this is highly unusual, though genetic instability in cropping fruit means there’s always a push, on the part of the apples, to revert to older varietals. The language for these heirloom species is as diverse as their colour range: “oblate” “shy bearers” and “golden keepers” with “water cores”, offer a “brisk subacid” or “vinous” flavour. When apple tastes change and apples go extinct the biodiversity of our adjectives wanes too.
That morning a storm surge drew oranges upstream. Wandering foam turned auburn in a gyre of oranges. Insects inched clockwork, an eddy in the air. The entire surface of the river was blanketed in fruit; we picked our way along the banks. Oranges slowing in the deep, tea-coloured water. Oranges snagged in tree roots, trundled in mud. Our dismay to discover: they were bitter oranges, and salty. Afloat, twitching, their undersides shredded by finger-length yabbies, fish and stonefly nymphs, until there were only hemispheres of citrus peel and hollow globes buried in the dark, eucalyptus riverbed.
We asked around. Consensus credited the high dollar. An influx of condensed juice, Brazilian valencias and the anti-sugar lobby meant farmers were dumping their oranges into the sea that season. But the fruit kept coming back, washing up with all the jolting punctuality of an omen.
Fibonacci triple, Byzantine fruit. Subject of the advanced still life class. The pineapple’s history in art is political. In a British painting from 1677 the Royal Horticulturalist John Rose supplicates himself before Charles II. In his hand, aloft, a pineapple. The look in Charles’s eye is pure gloat. Take that.
Back, back: the pineapple in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is edenic, a symbol of encounters with the New World. Here the pineapple is an imaginary fruit, a chimera. Described but as yet unwitnessed in Europe, Bosch paints it pink and immense.
Pineapples featured in the curlicues of furniture, in lacework samplers, and on a silver-coated oak table commissioned by a king. The Dutch, the French and the English all desired to grow one. In greenhouses stippled with frost, ennobled gardeners sweated for the first European pineapple. That pineapples in their native lands were pollinated by hummingbirds or tropical bats meant the gardeners’ labour proved largely fruitless. From bud to harvest a single pineapple can take three years to mature – what we know to be one pineapple is, in fact, over 200 little fruitlets. Charles II ate the first British pineapple with great pomp and ceremony on a bone-handled fork. Yet today there is no fruit more kitsch than the pineapple in Australia. Skewered on a toothpick with a cube of cheddar cheese, canned and slid into a burger bun, eaten wearing a Ken Done pineapple-print singlet. Pineapple tea towels, the Big Pineapple, pineapple shampoo. “Queensland Voters Set to Give Newman the Rough End of the Pineapple” – a headline from the new year’s news. “…pineapple head, it spins and it spins”, the festive stereo. “As compatible as popcorn and pineapple,” pronounces my Grandmother on a failed celebrity marriage. How to begin disassembling the pineapple? Where to put the knife in?
We are the old men of pear country, minds
Distorted by pear, the folds of our cortex curving
Over in pear gullies, forearms thick as pear trunk.
‘Pear Country’, Geoffrey Lehmann, 1972.
In 1788 prickly pears were brought by ship to Australia. The fleshy faces of their leaves swarmed with cochineal beetles. The beetles (squashed) instigated a valuable red dye industry, but the pears started the real infestation. A sort of cactus, prickly pear fruit are shaped for spinning tops, and are covered in spines and glochids: tiny blonde hairs that sting. You can peel and eat them but you have to spit out the seeds.
In the mid 1800s the prickly pears were a popular domestic hedge. Station owners grew them for stock feed because their blubbery leaves helped to hydrate cattle in drought. Then the pears went rogue. Over 60 million arable acres were under prickly pear forest by 1920. ‘Forest’ is no poetic hyperbole – the pears can get to almost three-metres tall on waist-thick trunks. They form barbed thickets, corridors of iron maidens alive and ingrowing. In ‘Pear Country’ Lehmann describes neighbouring homesteads and even whole towns cut off from daylight by pears. Government scientists introduced a moth from South America, the Catcoblastis. The Catcoblastis pureed prickly pears right where they stood. Paddocks emerged from mush.
Everything that goes into the fruit salad is an introduced species. A cultural history of curation, pollination, occupation and destruction gathers like juice in the dish. I cut a hard pear called Packham’s Triumph – the green skin turned buttery as it ripens.
A company in New South Wales propagates and sells a tree bearing six different kinds of stone fruit: a type of nectarine, peach, apricot, plum (yellow and blood) and a peachcot. Essentially it’s six trees grafted together and grown on an espalier. Some people call these “frankentrees”, though in fact they utilise more conventional botanical craft than other inventions of tree laboratories worldwide: Christmas firs spliced with jellyfish cells to emit their own glow, and softwoods that reach maturity only to spontaneously pulp themselves for the paper mill. The yield of the Australian multi-stone fruit tree comes in at different times over the season, so sadly you can never make a mélange from everything you’ve picked off it.
A nectarine is a recessive, bald peach. They grow on peach trees in the same way a child is sometimes born with one blue eye and a brown one. The cultivar that gives you a whole, heavy tree of nectarines is the descendant of a peach domesticated in China. There must be few pleasures in life greater than eating clingstone nectarines in a cool bath during a heatwave – this we recall, slicing fruit salad in the Perth summer.
“The errant grape is EVERYONE’s responsibility.” A sign beside hessian-lined displays of mall fruit. Pin it on a court case in Cairns; one large, liable slip. The security guard takes a slow lap to scan for scattered grapes. He palms a few from the arrangement for his trouble, the inky kind (they’re almost blue). Green, purple and yellow: no need to be covert about stealing a few grapes. Wired and weary in over-lit aisles, trollies stacked with packets and cans, it’s a little succour for the grind. There’s a utopian luster on the skin of this instance: a gesture of communality by accord amid the press of consumption. The supermarkets price and sell the grapes, and in taking more than we need for the moment, we pay for whole bunches. But there on the shop floor, eating mouthfuls of grapes, is a playlet in the agreed-upon fiction of ‘a sample prior to purchase’. At home we freeze them not to store them longer, but because we eat them slower when they’re very cold.
Tether to our nostalgia, wistful creeper. In the evening, pulling the vine back off the fence palings to look for ripe ones. The lunar glow of nascent passionfruit, their Martian flowers. Bouncing his infant son, my brother-in-law recounts a Dutch idiom, huisje, boompje, beestji: “the house, the tree, the pet”. Three ingredients for a whole life. Subconsciously, we replace the tree with the passionfruit vine. As children our hands were always too small to carry all the fruit gathered in a day. We lined them up on the kitchen windowsill: from the smooth and globular to the withered little black stars. Best to eat them hot from the sun and lick the insides clean. Styrofoam squeak of the passionfruit halved. Now they grow smaller and the white pith has thickened, womb-like. The vine is old of course, and the summers are hotter. A philosopher at the nearby university writes of a “psychoterratic” condition he calls solastalgia. With his research team, Glenn Albrecht has observed it in multiple cultures. Solastalgia is a type of mental pain that arises when home is irreparably changed by the subtle indexations of the climate. Things that should bloom don’t. Small rituals are relocated. Because the vine is depleted we buy ours this year. Passionfruit are expensive. “Well, you can’t feed a family on flowers,” a woman at the checkout said.
MORE FROM THE LONGER LIGHT SERIES:
The Longer Light Series explores the idea that our personal rituals – from the mundane to the grand – tether us to special places and particular times. It investigates how our rituals are contingent on the places where we perform them, on the rhythm of the seasons, on the weather of any given day, on what we see and smell around us.
The 12 distinct works of the series detail, document or respond to some sort of ritual (as each contributor interprets that word) enacted during a week of summer days and nights. The works will be published in weekly instalments so that, in concert, they plot the arc of an Australian summer.
The Longer Light Series is supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.