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Beyond Harry & David

Published: June 1, 2008

The coconut is technically a fruit, and every now and then it grows a pearl. 

The pearl-bearing coconut is one of some 30 surprising fruits that caused me to pencil an exclamation mark in the margins of “The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession.” 

Though I did not rank them, I would place the coconut more or less equidistant between the orange that tastes like chicken noodle soup and the exploding variety of pomegranate (“grenade means pomegranate in French”), but some distance below the miracle fruit, which makes everything eaten afterward taste sweet, including “boyfriends.” 

Adam Leith Gollner possesses a talent as rare and exotic as a coconut pearl. 

I opened this book, Gollner’s first, expecting the standard nutmeat of competent nonfiction and found instead something lustrous and exhilarating. 

Gollner’s is not the sort of talent one can develop. 

It is genetic, physical — an exquisite sensitivity of tongue, nose and eye. He describes one variety of the stinking durian fruit as tasting like “undercooked peanut butter-mint omelets in body-odor sauce”; langsats are “tangy-sweet detonations of citric perfection”; biting into a monkey tamarind is “like eating cloud.” 

Here is the Kuching market in Borneo, through the prism of Gollner’s gifts: “Balmy effluvia rising off the sidewalk clamp down on your sinus cavity. ... Writhing, roiling masses of fat sago worms are sold out of tree trunks. Men shout death threats at one another over corridors littered with squid tentacles.”

From “The Fruit Hunters”


A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession.

By Adam Leith Gollner.

279 pp. Scribner. $25.

“The Fruit Hunters” is a paean to the overwhelming diversity of fruits on this planet, both botanical and human. People who are passionate about fruits — hunters, cultivators, smugglers — are often as eccentric as their quarry.

 A wealthy fruit aficionado in Bel Air has plans to stock his garden pond with fruit-eating piranhas and makes pool-party guests take Chinese Viagra and don penis sheaths made from the shells of fried-egg fruits. When Gollner begins taking notes during an early morning drive with the “Fruit Detective,” David Karp, Karp jams on the brakes and asks what he’s doing. “What if I were to say something off color?” he snaps. The rest of the drive unrolls in silence, Karp “jabbing at the gas pedal and the brakes like a tap-dancing circus bear.” Gollner endures it all in high spirits.

Fruit obsession is nothing new. 

Here and there in their unexpectedly engrossing history, fruits have held as powerful a sway over man as has gold or myrrh. 

Cacao fruits were a form of currency in Mesoamerica. Queen Victoria is said to have offered knighthood to anyone who brought her fresh mangosteens from Asia. Gollner encounters fruit hunters so deeply in the thrall of their pursuits that they tackle the Amazon in a wheelchair or trek naked through the Nicaraguan rain forest after their clothes are stolen.

Though Gollner touches down in Borneo and Thailand, this book is not adventure-travel-with-fruit.

 The best fruits aren’t found by lighting out for virgin rain forest, but by heading only as far as the jungle’s perimeter, to village markets, and asking the locals. 

The best edibles are not those untouched by man, they are those that have been fussed over for hundreds or thousands of years, selectively bred to be sweeter, bigger, fleshier. The wild peach, Gollner writes, is “an acrid pea-sized pellet.” And “feral bananas are filled with tooth-shattering seeds.”

Having bred fruits to the pinnacle of sweet, plump perfection, we then proceeded to breed them back into unpalatability. 

Supermarket-bound fruit has been engineered for looks, durability and a long life span. It’s bred to be hard and picked before it’s ripe, so that it holds up on the trip to the store and the long stay in the produce department.

 “The result is Stepford Fruits: gorgeous replicants that look perfect, feel like silicon implants and taste like tennis balls, mothballs or mealy, juiceless cotton wads.”

The fruit industry and fruit marketing constitute the third of the book’s four sections. 

“Commerce,” says the heading, promising dreary times ahead.

 But Gollner has a prospector’s eye for the absurd, and can mine it from most any terrain. 

Scurrilous health food claims are nothing new, but Gollner unearths an attempt to sell condoms dipped in pomegranate juice as an H.I.V. preventative. 

The ill effects of pesticides are well known, but Gollner drives home the point as few others could, telling us that when a worker is hospitalized from organophosphate pesticide exposure, E.R. workers must treat his vomit as a “hazardous chemical spill.” 

Though the burden of reporting is heavier in this section, the writing never slackens. Here’s Gollner’s description of oxygen- and carbon-dioxide-controlled cold-storage facilities used to store apples: “With an atmosphere similar to Neptune’s, these warehouses are the sort of gelid death chambers befitting Walt Disney’s head.”

 Especially jaw-dropping is the section on fruit-based drug smuggling and money laundering.

Some of the things in this book strike the ear as so improbable — a “cannibal tomato” used in Polynesian “headhunter sauce” — that you wonder at times, Is he making them up? Or, more banally, Did he get it wrong? 

Occasionally he did. 

Borneo has no “deer the size of mice” (though it has a “mouse deer,” up to 30 inches long), and astronauts aren’t growing strawberries on flights to Mars. 

Yet I don’t see these statements as byproducts of sloppiness, but rather as those of an enchanted imagination. It’s a small price to pay.

At one point early in the book, the author explains how it’s possible to graft branches of different, say, citrus species onto one plant. 

A Chilean farmer, he writes, recently made headlines with a tree that bears plums, peaches, cherries, apricots, almonds and nectarines.

 It’s how I see Gollner: the talents of a food writer, investigative journalist, poet, travel writer and humorist grafted onto one unusual specimen. 

Long may he thrive.

Mary Roach is the author of “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” and “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.”

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