I wondered how many cherries babies could eat, and what they might think of the taste, or if they just know that the sugar tasted good.
The following short essay is part of a special series of nonfiction pieces on the topic of Fruit guested edited by 2019 Margins Fellow Sabrina Imbler.
At Whole Foods, I once watched a mother feed cherries from the sample bin to her baby. The two of them were there for a while, long enough to make an impression. The mother would bite the cherry, palm the pit, and then feed the seedless halves to the baby who was tucked in a stroller. I wondered how many cherries babies could eat, and what they might think of the taste, or if they just know that the sugar tasted good.
If fruit is nature’s candy is candy unnatural fruit? I think of the Grapple, the grape flavored apple, of cotton candy grapes and banana Runts. I think of my mom sniffing melons and turning over spiky durians at the Asian market. Sometimes there would be imported fruit: lychee and longan and mangosteen, but they were wrinkled and soft and not fresh enough for us to buy.
Now that I live away from home, I don’t eat as much fruit as I used to. Whenever I go home, there’s always fresh cut fruit for me, my sister, and my dad. My mom washes, peels, and cuts mangoes, papaya, and persimmons into smooth lobes and planes, and then into irregular cubes. We have fruit with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as dessert.
She douses pineapple in saltwater to cut the tongue-tingling bromelain, shakes sugar onto sliced summer tomatoes, and de-seeds pomegranates, the rubied arils tumbling onto the floor. She shops in bulk and buys big flat boxes of persimmons and pears and figs. Sometimes there’s so much fruit in the house that it starts to go bad, and then my mom carves off the soft and bruised parts and tells us to hurry up and eat before the fruit flies come. Usually by then, they’ve already arrived.
To my knowledge, my mom has never purchased pre-cut mango spears or melon from the supermarket. I imagine that, to her, such things are pure American nonsense. A waste of plastic packaging. She insists on peeling apples, the peels spiraling out from under her paring knife because “we don’t know what they put on the skin,” she says. “It’s so shiny, it’s not natural.”
I can picture her washing fruit, scrubbing away the pesticides and wax blooms. Letting the fruit steep in a bowl of sinkwater so chemicals might lift away from apple skins, pear skins, persimmon skins. I think of what’s left in the bowl, a cold broth of invisible impurities.
“Soak the grapes and then wash them,” she told me, and a few minutes later she would rustle them in the cold water and rinse away the residue. Later, living on my own, I will see people eat grapes plucked from the Co-op shelves, residue and all.
My mom believes in bringing fresh fruit on the airplane, in the car, on trains. Whenever and wherever she travels, she brings her own snacks because there’s nothing healthy to eat on the way. Once, after picking me up from the airport, she gave me a ziploc bag with an avocado in it. “Eat something fresh,” she told me. It was ripe enough for me to peel it with my hands in one leathery sheet. I remember eating it like an apple during the car ride home, slipping the greasy pit back into the plastic bag when I was done.
Before a fourteen-hour flight from Shanghai to Seattle, at her insistence, we shopped at a fruit store. It was a hot summer night, and the fruit store was lit with white fluorescence. You could smell it from a block away. Sweet, perfumed with ethylene emitting from the ripening bananas, pears, and kiwis. Flies buzzed lazily around us, sugar-drunk and looking for more.
“Get something with vitamins and fiber for the plane,” she said. I picked out an orange and two kiwis. We’d already eaten so much fruit this trip. Pounds of all the fruit we can’t get fresh in the states: lychees and longans and the tart waxberries that stained my fingertips purple.
On the flight, I sat in the emergency exit row. After picking at the hot dinner in its aluminum tray, I reached under the seat to get my fruit. The two kiwis had liquified under their thin hairy skin. They smelled fermented. I threw them out in the restroom trash can, ashamed of the waste, of my poor selection.
Still, there was the orange. When I dug my thumbnail into its peel, it misted my face with citrus oil. I ate the segments quickly, and I hoped discreetly, as some movie I can’t remember played in front of me on the seatback screen. My mom was right. I felt better after eating something fresh.
Sometimes I eat like a child: candy and chips ride the grocery store conveyor belt, and I feel sheepish at the checkout. But also free: no rules, no food pyramid, no one telling me what’s good for me and what’s bad for me. Candy doesn’t really go bad. This comforts me.
When I moved into my current apartment, I unpacked five bags of Kasugai gummies that I bought but didn’t open months ago: strawberry, kiwi, peach, pineapple, and lychee flavored, into the clear plastic crisper drawers and toggled the humidity setting from “vegetable” to “fruit.”
Here in my empty refrigerator, I had my own candy produce section, each packet bearing a vivid full bleed photo of its respective fruit flavor. They lasted me a while, six months or more. I took my time savoring each individually wrapped candy. The kiwi gummies were studded with little black seeds. I didn’t worry about fruit flies, or rot, or seasonal availability.
When it’s “made with real fruit juices and fruit purees” I feel better about eating candy. A week ago, I snuck a bag of Haribo’s Fruit Salad into the movie theater. The fruits in the salad are: orange, lemon, grapefruit, peach, cherry, and passionfruit.
The passionfruit gummi is dyed kelly green, sanded with sparkling sugar crystals. The taste, tart and peachy, concocted from “natural and artificial flavors,” doesn’t fit with the color, like how the green Haribo gummi bear is strawberry flavored. It seems obvious that strawberry should be red, but then what would cherry be?
There’s a red cherry varietal named “Nature’s Candy” but I can’t remember if I’ve tried it before. I wait for cherry season all year, but lately they’re seven, eight, nine dollars a pound at the Co-op. I eat them fast, so I try to buy them sparingly.
The chain grocery store has these big cherries, called “two-bite cherries.” They’re cheaper than the organic ones at the Co-op, and they’re plump and cartoonishly glossy. When I buy a pound of conventional two-bites and wash them under the faucet, jostling them in the colander with my hands, whatever is coating them coats my fingers. I wash the cherries again and my hands again and then I can’t resist eating them.
When I call her on the phone my mom reminds me not to scrimp on food. “Make sure you are eating healthy,” she says. “Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and wild-caught fish. You have to take care of your body.” I tell her that fish and fruit are expensive at the Co-op, that everything’s organic there so it costs more, but that she shouldn’t worry about me. When we get off the phone, she will email me an article about avoiding refined sugars. I don’t mention the candy.
The last time I was home my parents showed me the leggy leafy plants they sprouted from avocado pits, papaya seeds, and pineapple tops. There was a plate of fruit left out on the table for me, covered in cling film. The condensation under the plastic wrap reminded me of hothouse plants, of entire ecosystems encased in glass. I imagine my parents’ plants overtaking geodesic domes, rooting into the earth and growing into big green trees, branches heavy with fruit.