Strange Fruit

“It is reported that this Fruit (avocado) provokes to Lust, and therefore is said to be much esteemed by the Spaniards”

                                                ~ English explorer and naturalist William Dampier, 1685

As a kid in Texas, I was exposed to lots of vegetables and fruits that we didn’t see in the TV shows. For example, we ate okra frequently — fried okra is probably my favorite food. Of course, we had all the regular tomatoes, peas, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, onions, corn, green beans, pinto beans, bell peppers and even spinach (Popeye’s favorite, but not mine). We enjoyed watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches and pears (canned and fresh), plums, apples (sauce and fresh) — basically all the usual stuff. My mother was a wonderful southern cook, but usually stuck to the basics, like ham, veal cutlets, BBQ (pork and beef), liver, fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, hamburger, meatloaf and our favorite, deep-fried sweetbreads.

However, my father was more adventurous, and enjoyed cooking as much as eating. He would bring home things my mother was loathe to buy or cook. As a result, we got to try different things, particularly pickled items like beets, beans, onions, artichokes, hot peppers, and cauliflower, and strange fruits like avocado, kiwi, pineapple and figs.

In the meat category, our dad liked cooking steaks (beef or venison), ribs, wild game (duck, quail, dove), and fish (bass, perch, catfish). When out hunting birds, he often set up a small camp stove where he roasted just-collected dove or duck breasts, marinated in soy sauce in the cooler all morning. Sliced, marinated duck breast on a Saltine cracker with cheese in the shade of a mesquite around the back of the pickup where the dogs are resting – almost heaven!  

As we traveled, it became an opportunity to try new things. On hunting or fishing trips into near-west Texas, we often stopped at a café owned by one of my father’s clients. There I was exposed to Italian food beyond pizza and spaghetti, and at another to Polish dishes. He took us to fish restaurants to try calamari, crab, shrimp and crawdads.

But as much as I liked trying out new food with our dad, much of the enjoyment was in hearing stories that various food kindled in him. He told of a quail dinner he hosted for some friends where each guest got their own whole quail. In the cooking, however, one of the quail fell off the roasting pan onto the back of the oven, so they were one short. My mother directed my dad to just take a second baked potato and not let anyone know he didn’t get a quail. Things went fine, even though my dad was grumpy, until someone asked “Hey Ken, I just found some birdshot in my quail. Did you find one?” My father hesitated, and you could feel the tension rising off my mother. My dad responded without thinking, “Who the hell would shoot a baked potato?” Needless to say, the party ended shortly thereafter.

In WWII, my dad was originally stationed at Fort Ord in Monterrey, California. (My mother joined him there and that’s where they married.) You may know that area is the “Artichoke Capital of the World.” Dad first experienced artichokes there, and found that he loved them. One difficulty was that in eating a boiled artichoke, you take a leaf and scrape it between your teeth to pull the meat off the leaf fiber. However, if you have a gap between your middle teeth, as my dad did, that leaves a significant part of the meat behind. Dad complained that it was unfair, since he loved artichokes, but had to scrape each leaf twice.

After Ft. Ord, he was shipped to Adak, Alaska, an island in the Aleutian chain, where he finished out the war and dreamed relentlessly of fresh fruits and vegetables — but learned to eat fish, lots of fish. With nowhere to go on leave, he and others would go out on the local commercial tuna boats, where they worked for hours snagging tuna from the schools they followed.

They also enjoyed cross-county skiing to the top of the island, then coasting back down. It was very cold, obviously, and one time he launched head-first into a snow bank. Upon emerging, he found he could not see – just solid white – surely it was snow-blindness! He started to panic when one of his buddies came over, “Ken, quit being a baby! Just take off your glasses and remove the snow.” With no snow between his eyes and the lenses, he found that he could see!  

Back in California, he also discovered fresh avocados, which became another favorite. Writer Maria Popova describes avocado as “The most nutritious known fruit …” Most of my own avocado experience has been with guacamole, but I remember as a kid sitting with my dad eating fresh avocado sprinkled with lemon juice and salt. I don’t, however, remember being particularly “provoked to Lust.”

Additional information:

Maria Popova, Chance, Choice, and the Avocado: The Strange Evolutionary and Creative History of Earth’s Most Nutritious Fruit, 7/24/2022. The Marginalian

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