So I’m at a neighbor’s house and my neighbor has a falling-down pear tree in the back yard and it is chock-a-block with ripe pears. And since my neighbor is making me lunch, she must think the plate looks naked, or else seizes the moment and a captive audience for her wares. She puts a pear on the plate.
Well, half a pear. Apparently all the fruit that hangs on the tree or mercifully falls to earth is not, shall we say, grocery-store perfect. In fact, it’s half rotten.
But my neighbor has cut away the yukky parts and made it as lovely as something from the Garden of Eden, or so she thinks; for there on my plate is a creamy half-pear, its core removed, a blemish nicked from the side, a soft spot excised, and two half-ants still wriggling on it. Or maybe it is one ant, cut in two, still trying to put itself back together, with a friend of theirs – or its? – in another location, just smashed into the pulp, its legs still feebly wriggling.
And my neighbor puts this on my plate and says, “Try this – it’s one of my Bartlett pears.” She says it just exactly like the priest says at Mass, “Take this and eat it; it is the Body of Christ.” And I’m supposed to take the fruit reverently and savor it, and never mind the dead ants and all the cut-out bits, just close my eyes and swallow.
I just can’t do it. I can’t eat rotten fruit. But it’s late summer, it’s that fruity season, and everyone wants to make me a member of the Rotten Fruit Club.
When my neighbor turns away for a moment, I slip the pear into a paper napkin. “Mmm,” I say. “So sweet.” And later, when no one is looking, I drop it in the trash, and to my horror, there in the trash are all the bad parts she’d cut off, and they are moldy and really rotten looking. There are a couple of other pears on the drainboard, and by all that is holy, I swear that there are maggots crawling on them. And maybe I’m squeamish and ungrateful, but I just don’t like to eat bugs. Especially maggots.
So do I conclude that my neighbor is trying to kill me? Is she just really, really frugal? More or less insane? Not according to my friend Lily.
“I think people with fruit trees have a different standard for their own fruit than the fruit they buy at the store,” she says. “I think they’re just so happy to get any sort of edible fruit out of the tree that they ignore things like ants and big gangrenous patches.”
She must be right. Have you ever listened to people with fruit trees talk about their crop? They actually say things like, “We got seven peaches this year!” And, “If you cut that part out, you won’t even taste it.” And, “I’d rather have worms in my apples than use carcinogenic pesticides.”
Well, so would I. Theoretically.
I know that hot-house tomatoes are bred to be square and tasteless. I know that cucumbers have a thin coating of wax at the store, not a dollop of bird poop or the iridescent shine of a snail track, as they would in my own garden. And I’m always irritated by those yahoos at the grocery store who insist on peeling ear after ear of corn, tossing the husks and silk everywhere, terrified of buying a piece with a worm in it.
I feel superior because, for heaven’s sake, wouldn’t you rather have a piece of fruit that’s still natural enough to host a worm, rather than eat a genetically altered, doused-with-pesticide vegetable?
Well, yes, until mysterious juice-stained brown bags magically appear on the front porch, with a tell-tale swarm of fruit flies. I can’t escape friends or neighbors without receiving the Tupperware or the odd plastic bag like the Holy Grail – “Take some of these – our wonderful apricots! Our Santa Rosa plums! Our miniature nectarines!” Last month I drove around with a bowl full of bruised plums from my mother’s yard in the backseat until they turned into wine, and I felt drunk every time I got out of the car.
But what else is there to do with an abundant crop? “Sneak out before dawn to drop them in other people’s gardens, [leave them] in baby buggies at church doors,” poet Marge Piercy says in her poem called, “Attack of the Squash People.” “Get rid of old friends: they, too, have gardens and full trunks,” she advises. “Look for newcomers: befriend them in the post office, unload on them and run.”
I used to live in a house with a garden planted by an avid horticulturist and beekeeper. We had a walnut tree, an avocado, an apricot, apple and pear, a strawberry patch, and out in front, a generous lemon tree. Some years I found myself making jams and applesauce and offering fruit to neighbors (only unblemished, of course). One year, however, a couple of squirrels ate all the avocados and made serious inroads in the walnut crop. The weird weather over summer fried my strawberries and rotted the blossom-ends of all my veggies. A band of hungry raccoons arrived nightly to shake the apricot tree and gobble up its fruit. And the apples and pears were so wormy that I tossed them directly on the compost heap.
I wouldn’t dare to offer wormy fruit to friends.
But then my friend Jill asked me for a couple of lemons, and she sent a child over to fetch them. I went out front with a bag and picked up a half dozen lemons from the ground. They looked healthy and sound, except one, which was a little brownish at the end. So what, I thought. She’s cutting them up for juice anyway. I tossed it in the bag and sent the child home again.
A little while later, I got a phone call. It was Jill. “I want to thank you,” she said.
“Oh, for the lemons?”
“No.” She paused just long enough. “For making me a member of the Rotten Fruit Club.”
Advice to Aspiring Writers: Resistance is futile.