Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Obsession, Commerce and Adventure. His writing appears in The New York Times, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Orion, the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Good Magazine, among others. He used to be editor of Vice Magazine and associate editor of Maisonneuve Magazine. He recently made a short film about goblins. He has also played in a number of bands and still makes music now and then. He lives in Montreal, mostly, and Los Angeles sometimes, but always has this as his desktop image. The Fruit Hunters is published by Scribner in the United States, Doubleday in Canada, Larousse in Brazil, Souvenir Press in the UK, Sallim Publishing in Korea, and Hakusui Sha in Japan. Springs Eternal: The Neverending Quest for Neverending Life will be published in 2011. Until then: Ishq.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and it’s time for another episode of It’s All About Food. And we are live here, on January 29th, 2013, I’m in the studio here in Manhattan. And it was fun walking out to the studio today. When you are dressed for twenty or thirty degree weather, forty-five degrees feels really, really comfortable and nice. It’s a nice, nice day today, and it’s great to get out in it. All right, food is so important, and I want to know how did we get so detached, so separated from where our food comes from. How is it that most of us don’t have a clue what’s in the food we eat and don’t even care? How did it come to this? And how did we get so far away from what is fresh and natural and delicious? I don’t have the answers to those questions, but we are going to talk about something really, really basic today. Fruit. And yet fruit has so many different, delicious, scandalous, romantic, criminal aspects to it, and we are going to get right to it.
I am going to bring on my first guest, Adam Gollner. He is the author of The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Obsession, Commerce, and Adventure. His writing appears in the New York Times, Gourmet, Bon Apetit, Orion, The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Good Magazine among others. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Adam.
Okay. We are going to wait for Adam for a moment, and while we do, I am going to talk about some of my memories with fruit. Because a lot of things that happen in this wonderful, wonderful book, The Fruit Hunters, that Adam wrote, I really related to. For example, I think there is something really primal about eating food that is really fresh. What I mean by freshly harvested, freshly picked, and maybe some of us have lost it, but I know that when I have an opportunity to pick fresh food, there is something really deep inside me that gets really excited.
Adam you’re with us?
Adam Gollner: Yeah, I’m right here.
Caryn Hartglass: Hi, thanks for joining me on It’s All About Food.
Adam Gollner: Thank you for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: I loved reading your book (really underlined), I loved reading your book, The Fruit Hunters.
Adam Gollner: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t think I’m a fruit hunter, but I do have some passion about fruit. One of the things that excited me was how you described certain experiences that I’ve had with fruit so perfectly. You want to think that you are unique, and I realized that I’m not, but some of them are really interesting, and I’ll bring them up sometime along this program. What I was just talking about was when I was young, maybe about eleven years old, we moved into a new house and the backyard and beyond hadn’t been developed. And there were woods and blackberry bushes everywhere. I think they were blackberries and not black raspberries, but I don’t know anymore.
Adam Gollner: Where did you live? Where was it?
Caryn Hartglass: Long Island, New York. They were everywhere. To start with it was amazing that I was allowed to roam the woods and nobody knew where I was or where I was going. I don’t think that parents would do that very often anymore. But, I would just pick tons of them, and it just felt so magical to have such free fruit just growing for me to pick until I had enough. What a concept.
Adam Gollner: Yeah, that is beyond a concept. It’s just the most incredible thing. That is a universal childhood experience, I think. Even though yours is particular to you, many kids have these moments in nature with fruit. And, I think that those moments are amazing and they mark us, and most of us have some story like that. It may not be with blackberries, it may be with some totally different, exotic fruit depending on what part of the world people are in, but that feeling that you are describing is magical. That feeling is really what inspired me to write this book.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I had a couple more, and I’m just going to get them all out and then I’m going to get more out of you. I went to Costa Rica in 2004 and really fell in love with the undeveloped areas. Not the touristy Americanized areas but the undeveloped areas where the trees are just pregnant and bloating with ripe, luscious fruit. It depends on the season of course, and what would be dropping all over the place. I thought to myself this, and I ultimately ended up buying property there because I just was overwhelmed with these juicy, sweet things, some I knew, some I had never seen before. It was just a paradise, Eden.
Adam Gollner: For sure, for sure. That’s another lovely story. I feel like that’s a lucky story. A lucky story for a traveler to end up in another part of the planet surrounded by fruits you had never imagined could possibly exist. Wow, that’s a great part of being an adult.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, it brought out the child in me in some ways.
Adam Gollner: For sure, It’s like a direct connection.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you’ve just brought up altered state, and you’ve brought that up a number of times in your book when you talked about Fruitarians and Breatharians and different people that followed a path that had to do with fruit. Some of the fruit was hallucinogenic, but fruit, some kinds, can lead you to a different state of mind.
Adam Gollner: Yeah, I think that they can. There are a lot of possible ways, in which it can do that. There’s neurochemical ways, like you said, there’s hallucinogenic fruits, there’s toxic fruits, there are fruits that can kill you, there are fruits that are lethal out there, and there are fruits that can sort of unlock certain molecular pathways within your brain that are maybe exciting and maybe terrifying. Yeah, there is a whole weird thing there. What I was excited about most of all wasn’t something quite as psychoactive, but more the sort of things that you described in those two stories. That sense of discovery and the face that this stuff just comes out of the planet is so unexpected and mind-blowing and it tastes sweet.
Can I tell you a little story that your blackberry story reminds me of?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Adam Gollner: I remember when I was a kid, and when you were saying it, I just had a flashback to my own childhood. We had a kind of woods next to my home, as well, and we also had a vacant lot on the other side. I remember roaming around the woods all the time. I also remember once just hanging out on the vacant lot. There was a trampoline there, I think, we played on this trampoline. But what I remember is one August, the whole vacant lot became covered in wild strawberries. We had been playing on that grass all summer, and then all of a sudden, the grass was filled with wild strawberries. What a crazy thing. Even as an adult, to see that is a marvel and wonder and astonishment. As a kid you just can’t believe that the world could be anything better.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s like natural candy. You had a great line in the book (you had a lot of great lines in the book): “Willy Wonka has nothing on mother nature.” All those crazy candies Willy Wonka created in his candy shop, and yet all the fruits that you described in the book don’t hold a candle to those little concoctions he made up. (Note – Caryn meant to say the reverse, that the candies don’t hold a candle to nature’s fruits.)
Adam Gollner: Yeah, his are pretty marvelous. I guess it depends. Some people might find man made creations more interesting than what nature came up with. But I think most people don’t realize what nature came up with. Most of that stuff is not available for sale and is not available in our supermarkets, and people have never come across it and they just don’t know about it. They just don’t know it exists. So that’s another thing that I think this book does. You realize that there is so much stuff out there that we have never heard of because I didn’t realize that when I started the book. I had no idea. And then I learned about them, and, to me, they are so much more fascinating than anything we could put together with our minds and our machines and our technology. How could we ever come up with something like a durian?
Caryn Hartglass: You mention durian, and I have to admit I was on an all raw food diet for about two years. First, I was a vegan and I’m still a vegan and I will be, I am committed to that. But I tried all raw food for about two years, and I felt like I was going to be ostracized from the community because I did not like durian.
Adam Gollner: Well, where did you eat it?
Caryn Hartglass: I think I might have had some in Costa Rica, but I’ve had the frozen variety here in the United States because we can’t get fresh, and I would have the result of a frosted, frozen durian.
Adam Gollner: Yeah, that’s gross. But I think that if you go to Singapore or Malaysia, Borneo, Thailand and you have durian there, it’s not gross. It’s amazing. It’s a good thing. [Alfred Russell Wallace], the guy who discovered the Theory of Evolution at the same time as Darwin, he said, way back then, that durian is something that is worth a trip to the Far East to experience. It’s worth going just to try durian. I think that the same is true today. It’s a fruit that isn’t made for transporting around the world, and most fruits aren’t. Most fruits are made to be appreciated at a certain moment, at a certain height of ripeness, at a certain place, at a certain time. That’s part of the reason the book is about fruit hunters, it’s about people that are trying to have that experience. And we can have that experience in our backyard, as well. But it’s pretty rare that we have that experience in a grocery store.
Caryn Hartglass: The other story that really blew my mind was when you were talking about the Mara des Bois Strawberry in France. I was in France a few years ago, in the Bordeaux region visiting a friend, and we went to the local market in the morning and I bought a strawberry and it was exactly as how you had someone describe it in your book. It was the most fragrant, incredible, delicious experience, and it must have been one of those.
Adam Gollner: Yeah, very possible. You do see the Mara des Bois in France a lot, and man, when you have a good one. That’s kind of the beauty about them. They’re not all the same. Sometimes in a box you’ll get a couple that are just perfect. For some reason they make me think about Dimetap, that cough medicine. There is some weird grape thing in it. There’s no point trying to compare it to things because it one of those things that you can only fully understand by eating yourself. That’s part of the fun of the book: trying to come up with ways of making people feel like they are in some way aware of what you’re speaking about when they can’t really be. There’s no way to tell somebody what a pineapple is like if they’ve never had a pineapple. You can say what it’s similar to, but you’ll never really know unless they taste it themselves. That’s something that I saw first hand with the miracle fruit. Trying to explain it to people, they never get it.
Caryn Hartglass: Now this is the fruit that you eat and it doesn’t taste like much when you eat it, but then afterwards it makes really sour food taste sweet?
Adam Gollner: That is that one. I remember the best example of this. It’s like this always, you kind of talk about it and say, “It’s a little red berry. It looks like the size of a small olive, but it’s red. It has a pit, you bite into it, you swish it around, you spit out the seed, and then you eat sour things and they become transformed into sweetness. They taste very, very sweet.” And you tell that to people and they’re like, “I kind of understand what you are saying.” But they don’t really have any idea what you are talking about. Then they try it and their mind is blown. It’s always the same thing.
I remember doing this one interview, I think it was the first interview for the book. It was for a show called Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. I think it’s on youtube if you want to go see what I’m talking about it’s amazing. Because she was kind of like, “Alright, what are you talking about?” No idea what you’re talking about, and then she tried it and she was like, “Why didn’t you say that? Why didn’t you tell me what you were talking about?” People just cannot get it unless they try it, and that was just part of the fun of writing that book.
Caryn Hartglass: I can talk about food all day and I do and I love food and I love good food and I love whole, plant foods when they are really fresh and you can experience what nature intended, but there is a lot more to this book. There’s trade barriers and smugglers and seed registries. There’s so many little things that I wanted to touch on. Guano wars. And if you want to know what that’s about I think you are going to have to read the book because I don’t think that’s appropriate. No, it’s about the 1800s or something where people were shipping bird poop in order to fertilize their fields.
Adam Gollner: Yeah, fertilizer, that’s it. My favorite fertilizer is the remains of mummified cats in Egypt. They brought boatloads of cats to Britain from Egypt when they excavated the pyramids. They would ground up the mummies and spread them on the fields.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s probably some value to that. There’s probably nutrients in them that are good for the soil.
Adam Gollner: Yeah. Can I tell you another story about mummies that is going to be in the next book that I’m working on? I have another book coming out in August. It’s my new book, it’s called The Book of Immortality. It’s about the idea of immortality. That’s an idea that The Fruit Hunters explores: fruits being symbols of eternal life in religion. And I remember, as I was finishing the book, I was like, “What is eternal life? What is that? Where did we get that idea? Is it an idea? Is it a thing?” And so that became the start of a new book, which is sort of a continuation, in some ways, of The Fruit Hunters. I’m just in the final moments of copy editing it now, and I was looking over this one passage that connects to the mummies. In addition to people spreading the mummified remains as a sort of fertilizer, people also took that as a sort of anti-aging pill over a hundred years ago in Britain. People would actually eat the leftovers of mummies, the ground up remains. The things that we have done trying to live forever, trying to make our fields grow better. It’s fascinating.
Caryn Hartglass: It is. You talk a lot about that in the first book too. One of the reasons why I read your book was because I was talking about bananas a while ago on my show and talked about how the banana, as we know it, is probably going to disappear because of a virus that’s going on. You talked about it in your book, and one of my listeners said, “You have to read The Fruit Hunters.” So I want to thank my listeners for that and please keep telling me who I should be following and reading. But every food has its story. The bananas have a story, and there are so many other foods in your book that have their own crazy, interesting stories. But, I just wanted to get a little bit about the difficult things that go on in the world when it has to do with fruit. You talk about how a lot of drugs get into the western world through fruit.
Adam Gollner: Yeah, what an interesting thing. That drugs are often sent from Central American countries by companies that also ship other substances in the fruit crate boxes. That’s a perfect example of something that, as a reporter, you don’t expect to come across. You just say, “Oh, fruits are interesting. There are different fruits that come from different parts of the world.” Like when you went to Costa Rica you discovered these new fruits. When people go to different countries, they see these things. That’s what started The Fruit Hunters for me. But then as I deepened my research I kept learning things that were so weird and troubling. I guess that brings us to what my editor and I called “the dark side of fruits.” And there is a dark side. Whether it’s the use of fruit shipments to smuggle drugs or whether it’s the use of toxic chemicals in the growing process. There’s all sorts of things that I didn’t expect that I would learn about and some of them are pretty…
Caryn Hartglass: …not very nice. There are so many fruits and foods out there. Many of them are already gone and won’t ever come back. Some of them we’re destroying, and I imagine there are new ones that are happening all the time. You talk about hybrid fruits that are made. The whole concept of hybridization, it’s from dusting pollen from the stamen of one flower onto the pistil of another and growing out a resultant seed. This is natural, in a way. I imagine nature does this slowly and we speed up the process. There’s a lot of different new foods that have come out as a result. I’m comfortable with that. I’m not as comfortable with going into a chromosome and planting a gene to make new foods.
Adam Gollner: It’s interesting. There’s a chapter. I think it takes place at the Zaiger family farms], Zaiger Genetics in Modesto, California. It’s a family run operation, and they just take male and female flower and push them together and create little fruit babies and see what happens. That is what we can call natural selection. Even though it’s artificial selection, it’s humans that are doing it, it’s kind of what birds and bees do. They brush up against flower parts and knock them into each other so that the flower becomes pollinated and gives birth to a fruit baby. So, I think that’s natural. I think it’s useful and it’s fascinating. It’s a great, strange phenomenon. But then there are the laboratories that are splicing. That’s a little freakier, for sure. You don’t really know. I spoke to people on both sides of that debate, and it really rapidly becomes clear that we cannot resolve that. Our food system is so complicated. We have this sense that if we just put our minds to it we can find solutions and we’ll figure it out and we can have a way that it will be all good. And then you start speaking to people and you realize just how complicated and interlocked everything is and you run away from it screaming.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we all feel very frustrated because corporations pretty much have control and make all of the decisions and sway our representatives and it can by really, really frustrating. One of the things is that there are foods that I remember when I was young like watermelons with seeds in them, and they’re really hard to find. But I was comforted to read that there are people with all kinds of seeds from foods from long ago, that maybe they’re not all lost.
Adam Gollner: Yes, the preservationists are there. They are the unsung heroes of the fruit world. They are the real fruit hunters. These passionate amateurs who have collections in their backyards or even those who work for the United States Department of Agriculture and maintain germ clouds and repositories. There’s a great character, Richard Campbell, whose partner is Noris in Florida, who have this collection of mangoes, the American government’s mango collection. And they are just these two wonderful, intrepid adventurers going around the world in search of germplasm. These people are so amazing. With them you feel that they are telling us something, and what they are telling us is that we are in it together and that we are part of nature and that we have a role and that there are things that we can do. It is a very good story. Their story is a good story.
Caryn Hartglass: I like good stories. You mention mangoes. It reminded me of how in the book you are discussing nuclear agreements between India and Canada and India and the United States had a lot to do with how many mangoes we saw in our countries.
Adam Gollner: That’s a strange story. I have been told that that story may be, in reality, a little more nuanced than it’s portrayed in the book. I had gone off of a few news reports that were maybe a little sensationalist. But the sensationalist version of that story is probably, generally valid. It kind of gets into the intricacies of global trade and how India bought nuclear reactors from Canada for a while. Throughout that time the U.S. said, “Okay, we’re not taking your mangoes. We won’t buy any of your produce.” Maybe there were some things that were coming in, but I don’t think so. . It’s interesting how few countries get to export their food into America. At least their fresh food. So India wasn’t allowed to export its mangoes, but then they signed in a business deal with George Bush to buy some nuclear reactors or some form of nuclear technology from America. This was about seven years ago now. Part of the deal was that America would allow the mangoes back in. I think the mangoes needed to be irradiated.
Caryn Hartglass: Another horrible subject.
Adam Gollner: Which means they get, essentially, nuked by some nuclear technology that is killing little insects maybe living in the skin and who know what else. Yeah, that’s just a weird story.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s a lot of problems with imported food and one of them is they have to be irradiated to kill those little bugs
Adam Gollner: A lot of Central American mangoes coming to America are boiled or given what is called “hot water vapor treatment.” They are blasted with hot steam. They are kind of cooked a little bit.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I was surprised to hear that, but not surprised because the mangoes I get here in the U.S. don’t taste anything like the ones I get in Costa Rica that have just fallen from the tree. One more little question: There’s a film coming out called The Fruit Hunters, or it came out in Canada, and we should be able to see it sometime, here, in the United States?
Adam Gollner: Yeah. It is currently at film festivals. It just played at the Palm Springs Film Festival and its playing at the Berlin Film Festival very soon. It’s going to be coming out probably in a couple of months. It’s a film that has many of the stories that are in the book. It’s based on the book, but it’s also its own story. It has some characters who are not in the book, and I think it’s wonderful. You’ll see it soon.
Caryn Hartglass: Adam, thanks for joining me on It’s All About Food. I love this book. Did I say that? I really did, and hope that everybody reads it. It’s a great one. Okay, I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’re listening to It’s All About Food, of course, and we will be right back with Jill Eckhart from PCRM., Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine. Stay Tuned.
Transcribed by Steven Lee-Kramer, 2/11/2013