My son and I are walking through Chinatown in Los Angeles when I spot baskets of a fruit I’ve never seen. I ask the vendor what it’s called. He answers in something that sounds like Chinese, but might have been Malay. He beckons for me to follow him. In the back of the store, next to the dried fish, he whacks the fruit open and offers me one of the large teardrop pods. It’s sweet, custardlike in texture, maybe slightly slimy but not unpleasant. I nod. He seems pleased. He puts the rest of the pods in a sealed plastic bag. Money exchanges and everyone seems happy.
What I don’t realize, standing next to the dried fish, is that particular spiky fruit is mostly known for its strong smell.
Richard Sterling, quoted in The Travelling Curmudgeon, says:
“… its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia.”
Still ignorant of that fact, my son and I stop at a Marie Calendar’s Restaurant to have lunch. I open the baggie, thinking the fruit might compliment our salad and realize the problem. I quickly close the bag, but not before the people in the next booth complain that there’s a gas leak in the restaurant. Two tables over, someone else makes the same observation. I try to explain to my waitress that it’s not a gas leak, it’s an exotic fruit, but she’s not buying that any fruit could smell like that. “It’s really strong,” she tells me. “The manager is calling the gas company right now.” I get up and go to the front desk where the manager is on the phone and hand him the baggie. He’s puzzled. I open the baggie. He puts down the phone while I explain. I thought I would be asked to leave. Instead, he merely asked me to remove the offending fruit from the premises–immediately.
As soon as I got come, I called a friend who had lived in Indonesia. She knew exactly what I was describing–“a Durian,” she said giving me a name for the fruit. “You’re the only round-eye I know who has actually eaten it,” she added. “The smell is enough to make most people puke.”
That was fifteen years ago. Last summer, in Toronto, I noted both slant-eyes and round-eyes buying the fruit at the stand in that city’s Chinatown. I asked the guy ahead of me in the checkout aisle what he planned to do with his. He told me it was wonderful with sticky rice and coconut milk, like that was no big deal.
When my grandfather came to America in the 1930s, he’d never seen a watermelon. One hot summer day, he was at the market and noticed that everyone was buying watermelon, so he bought one. He brought it home and set it in the middle of the kitchen table. Then he and my grandmother discussed what to do with it. Cook it? Cut it? Peel it? Fortunately a friend showed up, who cut it open for them and showed them how to eat it. My grandfather always liked watermelon on a hot summer day, and I always cringed when he told that story. How could anyone be that dumb, I wondered.
My son and I still like to tell the story of how we nearly closed a Marie Calendar’s with an exotic fruit, but I’m beginning to wonder if the joke’s on us–a couple of unsophisticated bumpkins in a world that’s gone global.