fruit in and of life and knowledge

or a history in three kinds

March 1, 2006

West Campus

I ate two oranges, two apples, half a grapefruit, and a small pear today, and I’m eating another orange as I sit and stare at my notes, thinking about black-and-white pictures. These notes consist of a handful of index cards full of wobbly pencil scratchings and a sticker from a tangelo nestled among the tiny lines of graphite. A few weeks ago, I went on a walk to West Campus. It was a beautiful sunny day, and when I got there, I sat down on the grass in the middle of nowhere and ate the piece of fruit I had brought in my purse while I scribbled on the index cards. I left the peel on the ground. I read a book once where a ship comes to China with crates of oranges, and the protagonist’s uncle buys an orange but only eats the peel. According to him, it’s the most delicious part.

I finally started reading John McPhee’s book about oranges again. I read a few pages one night long ago in New Jersey when I couldn’t sleep and asked my dad for something boring to read. It might have been the most fascinating book ever — full of details and explanations of processes and a deep interest in the ordinary — but I left it there on the east coast. Reading it now, it reminds me of the best chapter of The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, about the secret history of fruit, the names and the friends of “nature’s convenience food.” That silly phrase is from an article about apples that I read a while ago, which explained how pre-sliced apples are going to be the new bagged salad because the ancient whole apple is too inconvenient for American standards of snackability (Mooallem). The article’s opposing points of view protest that pre-sliced apples are commodifying a commodity; apples are already the perfect snack food, no little plastic bag or calcium-based browning-retardation solution necessary. They don’t mention apple stickers, though. I eat an apple for the second half of my breakfast because I can munch on it while I walk to class at nine in the morning in the wind and sun, and I often get dangerously close to eating the little sticker too.

The first half of my breakfast is usually a banana. Most commercial apples and oranges are cultivars with well-known names, but there is only one kind of banana consumed in the United States, and this is the Cavendish banana. Before the 1960s, the United States ate Gros Michel bananas, but a fungus named Panama disease killed that variety (Koeppel). In the 14th century, Sir John Mandeville called bananas the long apples of paradise (Matterer). I enjoyed this until I read in Oranges that the Romans called all kinds of fruit “apples” (McPhee 66) — so the golden apples in the foot-races of the gods and goddesses may have been oranges. Another interesting bit from that book: another man in the middle ages wrote, “If a woman eats an orange…it will banish all evil thoughts from her mind” (McPhee 74). Unlike apples, apparently.

I’ve been interested in apple stickers since February 2005, when I wrote in my notebook about the standard Washington Granny Smith sticker as the pinnacle of apple sticker design: a relatively large price-look-up code, clear country-of-origin identification, clever placement of the little pull-tab, and no superfluous design elements. A while ago, I read an article in the Journal of Mundane Behavior about collecting fruit stickers, titled “Fruit Stickers — The Overlooked Booty of the Lunchroom” (Shiman). I felt simultaneously less alone and less original. The article said things that were familiar to me: “Tiny jewels of advertising with multi-color gradients…Even oranges have URLs.” I thought of my minor obsession as emblematic of my interests in advertising, branding, symbols, small representations, information architecture, usability. But after I read that article and saw a website that displayed hundreds and hundreds of scanned fruit stickers, I decided to switch to collecting military patches from World War II, which seemed like it might be an unusual hobby for my demographic if nothing else.

I was obsessed with apples for about a year. But over winter break I ate a lot of tangerines because the farmer’s markets in southern California are flooded with citrus in the winter; my mom bought a grocery bag full of little orange fruit every Sunday. I liked the tangerines, but I have a limited selection of fruit here at the dining commons, so I began to eat oranges too. I also eat grapefruit now, although grapefruit is tricky because I’ve read it has a catalyzing effect on certain chemicals in the human body. It releases more estrogen from birth control pills, increases the effectiveness of the caffeine in coffee, and makes the stomach more acidic (Krupa). My statistics teacher in high school said that eating enough grapefruit could kill you.

orange peel

Eating an orange could kill you too, if you were a character in Tropic of Orange, by Karen Tei Yamashita. The oranges in the book are filled up with cocaine in Mexico and then smuggled into California, eventually causing a tremendous, fiery freeway blockage in downtown Los Angeles. Midway through the book, oranges are banned from California. The pulpless orange halves of Gatsby’s West Egg parties seemed less dramatic after I read that. Oranges are still important in conjunction with recreational alcohol use (as UCSB has taught me), but Gatsby’s orange peels remind me of nothing more than the empty condoms I see on the pavement as I walk to the Isla Vista Food Co-op. Some decidedly non-organic orange juice made an important appearance at the one amateurishly drunken party in my house early this year, but social activities have calmed down since then. I have a friend who drinks pure orange juice from a gallon jug, instead of the traditional caffeinated beverages, while he writes code for his homework.

There is a “banana problem” in computer-science mythology as archived in a document titled HAKMEM. The problem has to do with the word’s repeating letters, and while I don’t quite understand it, I like it. Max, my computer-science boyfriend, also tells a story about how to pre-slice bananas. First, stick a pin into the top of a ripe banana and wiggle the pin around horizontally. Then, take it out and stick it in again about an inch lower. Wiggle. Repeat. You now have a pre-sliced banana, ripe for practical joking! Put it in a fruit bowl and watch somebody peel it. The internet is full of this stuff: a little video circulates around the web about how to divide a banana into three sections with your thumb (Steve), and there was a tip on a popular blog a few weeks ago about how to open a banana from the bottom end (Frauenfelder). My little sister told me about both banana tricks a long time ago. I think she might be a monkey.

When I visited family in New Jersey over winter break, I was amazed at the profusion of apple varieties in normal grocery stores — the Ralph’s equivalents, not even the Isla Vista Food Co-ops, of the east coast. The walls held baskets of apple cultivars I’d only ever read about in The Botany of Desire: Cortland and Braeburn and Roma and McCartney and more. I bought a few of the ones with lovely names even though my step-mom already had bags of Fujis in the trunk of the rental car. I’m tired of Fuji apples; I ate one every day at lunch throughout my last two years of high school. The next morning, I took the train into New York with Max (who had become my boyfriend a few days earlier); we ate the apples for dessert after lunch. It was a cold and rainy day, the restaurant was warm and dry, and we decided that the Braeburn apple tasted best. This was a bit of a revelatory experience: it was the first meal we shared, and we both bit into the pieces of fruit. Then we, naturally, analyzed the apples to death: the Cortland lacked the sweetness and complex flavor profile of the more expensive apple. I found Braeburn apples at the Isla Vista Food Co-op a month or so ago, and Max and I shared them again. Sweetness, Michael Pollan explains, is the desire that apples fulfilled for early American pioneers. That and intoxication; most of those apples were made into hard cider.

“‘Sweet’ is [also] the epithet most commonly applied to kisses,” as one Valentine’s Day article on the history of kissing explains, “But kissing may be more closely linked to our sense of smell than taste” (Foer). There is another book that I want to read: The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr. I wrote a note to myself some time ago to acquire a signature perfume for the romantic associations and pure literary power of scent in memory. Burr also writes perfume reviews on his website, which gave me a few ideas for perfumes to try, but now I think my scent needs to have apple- and orange-blossom notes. The orange part might prevent evil thoughts, after all. But citrus is about desire, too; McPhee tells of how “Oranges and orange blossoms have long been symbols of love” (72) and refers to the old anecdote about medieval women biting into limes or lemons to redden their lips and look sexier (73).

A lemon tree living in my dad’s backyard is never pruned and does not produce very much fruit, but it has a name: Vladimir Lemon (my older sister christened it when she was in her Russian phase). In contrast, my mom’s backyard fields a few orange trees, but those oranges are sour and unsatisfying. The next time I go home, I’ll inspect them, armed with new knowledge acquired from McPhee. Are the oranges thin-skinned with a thick albedo (both “the fraction of incident electromagnetic radiation reflected by a surface, especially of a celestial body” and “the spongy white tissue on the inside of the rind of citrus fruit” [Dictionary])? Is their little ravine cold at night? Did the trees produce more fruit when the swimming pool was there? What variety are these oranges, anyway? Her neighbor’s lemon tree, in contrast, produces an abundance of wild and heavy lemons, perfect for my attempts at making lemonade-from-concentrate fancier with a few hacked-up slices of pithy fresh lemon. The beginning of Oranges is all about the rise of concentrated orange juice; fresh orange juice is a lot more popular again now, forty years after the book was published.

I didn’t eat any oranges at the age when I first read the beginning of Oranges. I used to hate grinding the membranes with my teeth; now I don’t mind as much, or maybe I’m eating a different variety of orange. I didn’t eat any bananas from ages six to sixteen, either, because I detest unripe ones and somehow I thought all of them tasted nasty like that. I only tried eating another banana on a whim a couple years ago. I even refused to eat apples for several years because the peels of Red Delicious apples felt hard on my young gums — then I discovered Fujis during high school and only ate them. I ate only Golden Deliciouses last quarter and Granny Smiths this quarter. I have no idea which cultivar (or species) is next; I might run out of new things to try at the dining commons. However, all of this fruit may cause mental imbalances, according to The Anatomy of Melancholy:

[Crato] utterly forbids all manner of fruits, as pears, apples, plums, cherries…they infect the blood, and putrefy it…Laurentius approves of many fruits, in his Tract of Melancholy, which others disallow, and amongst the rest apples, which some likewise commend…Nicholas Piso in his Practics, forbids all fruits, as windy, or to be sparingly eaten at least, and not raw. (Burton, pt. 1, 221-222)

So fresh fruit is bad for the blood — it’s too windy — but apples seem to be acceptable in moderation. And fruit is possibly part of the cure, too:

[Crato] censures all manner of fruits, as subject to putrefaction, yet tolerable at sometimes, after meals, at second course, they keep down vapours…Sweet fruits are best, as sweet cherries, plums, sweet apples…Montanus and Mercurialis out of Avenzoar, admit peaches, pears, and apples baked after meals…Pomegranates, lemons, oranges are tolerated, if they be not too sharp. (Burton, pt. 2, 25-26)

At the summer camp I went to during elementary school, we sang a prayer while standing in line before every meal in the mess hall, usually the Johnny Appleseed song. It has sweet and innocent lyrics about growing apples for the world to share and the Lord being good (Sung Graces). So I liked Michael Pollan’s depiction of Johnny Appleseed as a wild Swedenborgian evangelist, a Dionysian figure who brought apple cider to thirsty pioneers. According to Pollan, Johnny Appleseed staked out land with apple seedlings as he explored America — reminiscent of the McDonald’s strategy of maximizing return on a piece of real estate by putting a hamburger stand on it. McDonald’s pioneered the pre-sliced, pre-bagged apple phenomenon and “buys more fresh apples than any other restaurant or food service operation” (Warner). But I first heard about pre-sliced apples at the lunch tables of my high school, where my friends received little plastic bags of apple slices in their government-provided lunches. They munched them while I ate my whole, organic Fuji apple: privileged goods from the farmer’s market that my step-mom still goes to every Sunday.

Johnny Appleseed

works cited

“Albedo.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Burr, Chandler. “Five Favorite Scents.” Feb. 2006. 28 Feb. 2008 link.

Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. The New York Review of Books, 2001.

Foer, Joshua. “The Kiss of Life.” New York Times. 14 Feb. 2006, Editorials. 19 Feb. 2006 link.

Frauenfelder, Mark. “Peeling bananas from the other end is easier.” Boing Boing. 21 Jan. 2006. 28 Feb. 2008 link.

Howe, Denis. “HAKMEM.” Free On-Line Dictionary Of Computing. 19 Jan. 1996. 19 Feb. 2006 link.

“Johnny Appleseed.” Sung Graces, edited by Sue Wichers. 19 Feb. 2006 link.

Koeppel, Dan. “Can This Fruit Be Saved?” Popular Science June 2005. 1 Mar. 2006 link.

McPhee, John. Oranges. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

Matterer, James L. “Foods To Never Use.” How to Cook Medieval. 17 Feb. 2006 link.

Mooallem, Jon. “Twelve Easy Pieces.” New York Times. 12 Feb. 2006, Magazine. 19 Feb. 2006 link.

Krupa, Donna. “New Research Examines The Metabolic, Cardiovascular Effects Of Caffeine Consumed In Conjunction With Naringin, The Property That Makes Grapefruit Unique.” The American Physiological Society. 9 Apr. 2003. 1 Mar. 2006 link.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House, 2002.

Shiman, Andrea. “Fruit Stickers — The Overlooked Booty of the Lunchroom.” Journal of Mundane Behavior, Outburst #12. 1 July 2002. 1 Mar. 2006 link.

Steve. “the secret of bananas — caught on tape.” The Sneeze. 21 Mar. 2005. 28 Feb. 2008 link.

Warner, Melanie. “You Want Any Fruit With That Big Mac?” New York Times. 20 Feb. 2005, Business. 1 Mar. 2006 link.

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Tropic of Orange. Coffee House Press, 1997.


West Campus. Personal photograph by author. 9 Feb. 2006.

Orange peels on a desk by the library. Personal photograph by author. 16 Feb. 2006.

“Image:Japple.gif.” Online image. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 1 Mar. 2006 link.


Edited version of Ceci n’est pas une pomme by René Magritte, 1964.


This was an assignment from “Malaise, Melancholy and the Production of Art”, taught by Jacob Berman: walk for a couple of hours in a place you’ve never walked before and then write about it in the style of The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald.

go back to jeweled platypus