‘Australian Fruit Salad’
Chart Collective ‘The Longer Light’ Series, 2015.
Edited by Sophie Allan
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.