Sunday, December 14, 2014

Grapefruit has thwarted me

     There is nothing interesting to say about grapefruit.
     Regular readers will recognize that admission as an earthquake, coming from me.
     Because I believe that there is something interesting to say about everything, if you dig long enough.

     But grapefruit has thwarted me.
     "grapefruit, also called POMELO (Citrus paradisi), citrus tree of the Rutaceae family and its edible fruit," the Encyclopaedia Britannica begins, unpromisingly. "The grapefruit tree grows to be as large and vigorous as an orange tree..."
     That's whole grapefruit story, isn't it? A larger, sourer orange? The orange's dim older brother, who never went to college, and grew bitter over the years, up in his attic room, big and bulky and embarrassing.
     Now, if the subject were oranges, well, that would be another matter. Oranges would be easy. Books have been written about oranges.
     At least one book, Oranges, by the great John McPhee.
     Or limes. My God, limes, just the British naval aspect alone could fill a week's worth of posts: Grog. Limeys. Scurvy. 
     Not to forget key lime pie. 
     There is no grapefruit pie.
     Even lemons. How did troublesome cars ever get called "lemons?" I'd love to find out.
     But grapefruits....
     They're big. And heavy.  And ...
     ... delicious. There is that. I eat a grapefruit almost every day for breakfast. One entire grapefruit — no halving and segmenting; too messy and time consuming. No sugar or sweetening or demure half maraschino cherry placed at the center — defeats the purpose. 
       One grapefruitian orb, peeled, like an orange, eaten in segments, the separation of which can be a true challenge, tearing away all that thick white coating, but worth it, when you pop the first segment, feeling the sweet, nourishing grapefruit goodness coursing through your system, jump-starting your brain. Low calorie, but enough to hold you until lunch. 
     Most of my days begin with a grapefruit—220 breakfasts in 2014, by my count (I record the calories so it's easy to tally them up) which is what prompted this futile exercise: a lot of time with grapefruit. There must be something more to them than just the eating. And I would have consumed even more grapefruit, but our stock periodically runs out, or sometimes I do get tired of them — "grapefruited out" is how I put it — or just feel like an English muffin or a bowl of Wheat Chex instead. But if I do, usually I regret not sticking with the grapefruit. Cereal leaves you hungry; a grapefruit lingers.
     Must be the citric acid, which is in all citrus, of course, or the lycopene, which accounts for the pinkish yellow of grapefruit and it thought to reduce the risk of heart disease. 
     I suppose I could work the nostalgia angle. My grandmother every year would send a case of grapefruits up from Florida in the winter, a great luxury, because how were we supposed to get them otherwise? 
    Or there was the time, at the Royal Cafe in London, when we all ordered grapefruits baked in kirsch, because really, how often do you get the chance? And my mother, having never seen a salt cellar before, and thinking it was sugar, dosed salt all over the warm crusty delicacy. 
   But I want to do better than that. I suppose I could troll pop culture. Yoko Ono titled a book of random musings "Grapefruit," but to find out why I'd have to read it cover to cover, and I'm not willing to go that far. A glance is enough.
    Better to find refuge in the cinema. No great movie scene collection used to be complete without Jimmy Cagney mashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in "The Public Enemy." But given our times, that moment has lost its whimsy. 
     One problem with finding lore on grapefruits is, they're a recent development. Oranges go back thousands of years in China. But what appears to have been grapefruit, referred to as "forbidden fruit" by the British, a nod to the Garden of Eden, were noticed in the Caribbean only around 1700. "It thus appears reasonable to assume that the name 'grapefruit' originated in Jamaica, and has been used since 1814," Walton B. Sinclair writes in his 667-page The Grapefruit: Its Composition, Physiology and Products. Which means the word "grapefruit" is a more recent construction than the word "computer." 
     According to Citrus: A History, by Pierre Laszlo,  the variety of names for grapefruit include pomelo, the British term (the 12 volume 1978 Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for "grapefruit," but tucks the word in a list of derivatives under "grape," identifying it as a U.S. term, so chosen, I found elsewhere, because the fruit bunch in the trees like giant grapes). Laszlo continues with shaddock, then pamplemousse, which is French. He doesn't mention it, but German for grapefruit is .... ready? ... grapefruit. A lack of imagination on their part but then, with grapefruit, that's par for the course. 
     Orange is a color. Lemon is a color. Grapefruit is a ... well ... grapefruit. Its only creative use as an adjective is "Grapefruit League"—baseball pre-season spring training games in Florida, where grapefruits migrated from the Caribbean by 1830. Florida also produces the most grapefruit in the U.S., which leads the world, grapefruitwise. 
     While looking at oranges, some of McPhee's gaze fell upon grapefruit, and, unlike me, he had no problem unearthing grapefruit-related wonders. 
     "Citrus does not come true from seed," he writes. "If you plant an orange seed, a grapefruit might spring up. if you plant a seed of that grapefruit, you might get a bitter lemon." 
      Thus the trees must be grafted to get the proper fruit, a technique sometimes used to dramatic effect.
     "A single citrus tree can be turned into a carnival," he continues, "with lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, and oranges all ripening on its branches at the same time."
      Yowza. I didn't know that. And neither did you. But now we both do. 
      The only writer beside myself I know of who loves grapefruit was — not to compare us in any other fashion — Hunter S. Thompson. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is laden with the softball-sized fruit.
     His Samoan attorney orders from room service, along with the club sandwiches, shrimp cocktails and rum, nine grapefruits.
     "'Vitamin C," he explains. "We'll need all we can get."
     In Thompson's book, grapefruits are practically a leitmotif: they're chopped apart with razor sharp knives; they're moved out into the trunk with the luggage; they become Thompson's only source of sustenance at one point: "I'd eaten nothing but grapefruit for about twenty hours and my head was adrift from its moorings." 
     He carries grapefruit in his satchel, pulling one out on an airplane and slicing it apart with a hunting knife, which makes a stewardess nervous. 
      "I noticed her watching me closely, so I tried to smile," he writes, explaining to her: "I never go anywhere without grapefruit...It's hard to get a really good one — unless you're rich."
    A grapefruit is key in one of the oddest sequences in the book, early on, when Thompson hurls one into the bathtub where his attorney is having some kind of drug-induced psychotic breakdown while listening to Jefferson Airplane at full volume.
     "I let the song build while I sorted through the pile of fat ripe grapefruit next to the basin. The biggest one of the lot weighed almost two pounds. I got a good Vida Blue fastball grip on the fucker and just as 'White Rabbit' peaked I lashed it into the tub like a cannonball."
     I can't tell you how often I've thought of that line. Because grapefruit are huge, we store them in the second-hand refrigerator in the basement, and I'll tramp down to get one for breakfast. Walking back up the stairs, that phrase, "a good Vida Blue fastball grip" — Blue was a hotshot lefty for the Oakland As in the early 1970s — pops frequently into mind, and I'll happily bounce the grapefruit on my open palm, sometimes even arrange my fingers around it as if I were about to fire it across the plate, and smile, thinking: mmm grapefruit. 
     Well, I guess we've dug up enough on the subject. Maybe something interesting after all. As I was wrapping up, I bumped into Craig Arnold's lovely little poem,  "Meditation on a Grapefruit," that sums up the breakfast process far better than I ever could. Compare my windy effort above with the concise beauty of this:

                  To wake when all is possible
          before the agitations of the day
          have gripped you
                              To come to the kitchen
          and peel a little basketball
          for breakfast
                          To tear the husk
          like cotton padding        a cloud of oil
          misting out of its pinprick pores
          clean and sharp as pepper
                                      To ease
          each pale pink section out of its case
          so carefully       without breaking
          a single pearly cell
                             To slide each piece
          into a cold blue china bowl
          the juice pooling       until the whole
          fruit is divided from its skin
          and only then to eat
                            so sweet
                                      a discipline
          precisely pointless       a devout
          involvement of the hands and senses
          a pause     a little emptiness

          each year harder to live within
          each year harder to live without

     This perfect paean appeared in Poetry in October, 2009. As a tribute, it turned out, not just to the fruit, but to the poet himself. The previous spring, while exploring Kuchinoerabu-jima, a minuscule Japanese island, he fell into a volcano and died.
     Which is a long way from where we started. But that's the marvelous thing about grapefruit: one will take you a long way. Or at least until lunchtime. 


  1. Interesting. I believe I tried grapefruit once as a child, and never again during the ensuing half century or so. I believe that my children have never tasted one. My wife doesn't eat them, and I'm not sure that I even know anyone who eats them. What got you started?

  2. I have to slice mine up and put sugar on it. That is how I learned to eat grapefruit. By the way it is the Graprefruit League in Florida and the Cactus League in Arizona.

  3. Care to explain your non-sequitur? Something to do with grapefruits that is hostile to Christianity? Or just couldn't wait to get that out. Some Christians, when they come upon people who believe differently, constitute their polite desire not to have an alien religion shoved down their throats, particularly not by the government, they interpret that as "hate." I assume that's what you're referring to. If you have a certain sentence of mine in mind, I'd love for you to share it. Because my bet is the hate is all between your ears, and you're projecting it at me.

  4. You don't have to say anything to get some people riled up. -- they know what you're thinking.

    One thing you failed to mention is that grapefruit interacts with some medicines, so we unhealthy ones, having fallen short of eating 200 some grapefruiit a year, now are not allowed to eat 1.


  5. The grapefruit is also useful as a size comparison tool, as in “his scrotum swelled to the size of a grapefruit,” or “hailstones the size of grapefruits bombarded the area.” But what’s with the name? We take the name of an already existing fruit, and tack the word “fruit” onto the end of it? I once ate a bananafruit every goddamn day for 300 days and then I got sick of them.

  6. Don't forget, that eating grapefruit is contraindicated while taking many drugs, as it can render them useless.

  7. Oh, nostalgia for grapefruit! Wonderful Texas Ruby Reds. Would eat not just one a day, but two if they were small, because small just didn't suffice. Even Fresca, lovely grapefruit as bad-for-you soft drink. Alas, I now take a statin & am forever lost from the dear taste I crave. [There were also news report hints my breast cancer may have resulted from past grapefruit indulgence.] Neil, you cut too deeply.

  8. Here's something else interesting about grapefruit: if you judge fruits by their pharmacological potency, it's the mightiest - how many other fruits do doctors warn you to check your meds against?

  9. This is one of those columns when they write about you writing every day they will write about. Loved it.

  10. If you try the ruby reds, with sugar, you may like it.


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