The Secret Lives of Fruits and Vegetables7 June 2017
A banana is prone to bumps and bruises. Mark Twain said ‘the peach began as a bitter almond,’ as it evolved over 3,000 years into a sugary sweet symbol for long life and celestial powers. The eggplant grew from something that resembled a sour yellow egg. In Chinese, the word li means both ‘pear’ and ‘separation’. The skin of a plum ages and wrinkles like human flesh. Plants are more than just their flavours and textures. They have personality, chemistry. They hold history and mythology. They hold culture and symbolism. Produce is vital and complex and by the time our fruits and vegetables make it to the supermarket, they’ve already lived out the greater part of their secret lives.
The coconut is the distant cousin of the full moon, oozing with sugar water instead of with silvery light. The coconut is a motherly bosom, leaking milk from feathery brown ducts. The coconut is a severed head, a thick, brown skull filled with thick, white marrow. It’s very name is derived from the Portuguese word for skull – coco.
In New Britain, the coconut skull grew from a boy, swallowed whole by a shark, save for his head. In New Guinea, the coconut skull grew from a fisherwoman who removed her head voluntarily so that the fish could swim through her veins. In India, the coconut skull grew from a simple seed and then floated itself around the world, swimming through the ocean, being smothered by its great watery kisses. The coconut can float for one hundred and ten days. It can swim for four thousand eight hundred kilometers. The coconut is a traveler of lands, a swimmer of seas. The coconut loves to feel waves washing around it. The coconut loves to spread its fibrous roots through sandy soils and stare into the sun, furry and gaping, with two round eyes and a tiny ‘o’ for a mouth.
The world of beets is dense with purple blood and melancholy. Buried like rubies in black soil, their leafy sails reach skyward, laced with mystical potency and burgundy veins. The beet is like a human heart, a beating muscle, a passionate stain. The beet is what, when eaten in excess, will turn your piss red. They evolved from the wild seabeet and the Greeks offered them to their sun god. They are said to have grown in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in 800 BC.
It is the beetroot to which Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, attributes her romantic powers and, in early Celtic culture, it was powdered beetroot that women used for rouges and lipsticks when colouring themselves with romantic aura. Everyone knows that if two people eat from the same beet they will fall in love.
There are, of course, white beets too. Beets that bleed the sugar that provides twenty per cent of the world’s sugar production. Beets like the mangel-wurzel (or mangel beet or field beet or fodder beet) with its large, yellowed, swollen roots. Mangel-wurzel, the source of the name for Melbourne’s six-piece jazz, pop, scuzz, krautrock, punk, grunge band. Mangel-wurzel, the main ingredient in Jitterbug Perfume. Mangel-wurzel, German for ‘lesser root’. These white beets are less feverish and red, but they are beets all the same.
The pumpkin is the guardian of the human realm, scowling and auburn, warding off dead spirits as October comes to its end. A long time ago, when the turnip married the melon, the pumpkin was born. The pumpkin is the middle child in a family of three sisters. Its older sister, corn, grows tall to support their youngest sister, the bean, by providing its stalk as a natural trail for beans’ vines. The bean shoots the earth full of nitrogen for the corn. They provide for one another. The pumpkin has raging middle child syndrome, always feeling left out, always feeling forgotten. The pumpkin works for its sisters even though they do nothing for her, providing shelter to keep the moisture in. The pumpkin is technically a fruit. She represents under-appreciation. She represents loss. She is the Christian soul in purgatory.
The pumpkin is the spice added to the foamed milk of the White Girl. Columbus carried the seed of the pumpkin back to Europe to feed the pigs. Selfless, she is dropped into the dirt for the plump, pink snouts to guzzle her up.
The pitaya is the lusty, magenta egg of an alien fallen to earth. It is a strawberry pear, a red artichoke with lime green scales that, when cracked open, reveals a translucent flesh dotted with black kiwi seeds. It grows, bitter, leathery skin on a climbing cactus, birthed from a moonflower called ‘Queen of the Night’. Bats and moths pollinate the plant in the evenings, slipping through the stars to shower and spread its spores.
The pitaya is commonly known as the dragon fruit. It was birthed into existence thousands of years ago during a battle between humans and dragons. When the dragons spat fire at soldiers, the fruit spilled from their throats. Once all the fire-breathers had been slain, the fruit was gathered up and presented to the Emperor like precious garnets.
There is a whole world of invisible qualities to the produce we eat every day, all rooted in secrets and lost, forgotten amongst the calories and nutritional densities and numbers. Every fruit and every vegetable offers us truths that we can only access if we travel outside the confines of our own minds.