Sunday, December 26, 2010

Apples and Oran..., er, Mangoes

I'm reading this fascinating book called 'The Botany of Desire' by Michael Pollan. I must confess I have become something of a fan of Michael Pollan. It is hard to place his writing. It's non-fiction but I don't know what else to call it. He has a knack for combining history with folk-lore, scientific truth and a very poetic understanding of this world together into an engrossing reading. He is a miracle worker with words because nothing else explains why I'm so enamoured with a chapter about apples.

Yes, apples. Pollan traces the history of apples in the American continent. Apples were, of course, brought to America by the Europeans. But then they gained a life of their own in the New World. Pollan takes us on a journey through the life of the legendary and somewhat mythical Johnny Appleseed who is credited with the rise of apple in the US. He tells us about the origins of many different varieties of apples, the Red Delicious being the most prominent of them, and diversity that existed during the heyday of the apple. He finally brings us to rest in an exploitative monoculture that favours a few choice varieties over the myriad flavours that apple had to offer in the days gone by.

Apples in the US have some of the same status that mangoes do in the Indian subcontinent. But they are fruits separated by the gulf of time. The mango is an ancient fruit. It is entrenched in the Hindu religious life as no other fruit. The wood used in a yagya is often mango. Mango leaves are auspicious decoration on happy occasions. India cuisine is infused with mangoes -- chutney, pickle, aamras, or just eaten raw and ripe. There are hundreds of varieties of mango, each different and distinct.

The apple is similar. It is infused in the American life in the same way. There are hundreds of varieties, each distinct. And there is the cider, the pie, the sauce and what not. But unlike it's sub-continental counterpart, it's a modern fruit. It's been first domesticated and then industrialised. It's part in culture has been decided as much by tradition as by trade and commerce. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" is a clever marketing slogan. It's breeding criteria -- beauty and sweetness -- are dictated by the exigencies of being able to market the fruit in superstores.

Reading the book, I realised how difficult it is for an outsider to really know a culture. Growing up in India, one has a very different relationship to the mango. One has seen mango groves, climbed on mango trees, seen one's grandmother pickle raw mangoes. Growing up in the the US, one sees cider presses and apple orchard and grandma's making apple sauce and apple pies. It is hard for an outsider to have the same relationship with the cardinal fruits of another culture.


  1. interesting indeed...and i totally agree with u on the point that its extremely difficult to completely understand a culture if you havent really been exposed to it for a fairly long time...

  2. Hm the case of finding differences in cultures and cultural paradigms will always exist. The interesting thing, I feel is the differences between them.