Perfume, Biodiversity & the Importance of Names

Deborah Madison

Deborah Madison › What began as a mild interest in cooking grew to a passion that included stints at ...


One thing about commercial fruit is that it’s generally dismal. And that’s a shame because fruit is meant to be seductive, to lure birds and beasts who will eat it and leave its seeds, stones and pits to germinate and grow into new trees, bushes, and shrubs. But fruit should lure in human beasts as well. A floral, white peach is one of the most seductive fruits imaginable – “It’s like eating a flower!” a young girl told me after her first bite. Kids cannot be kept away from ripe strawberries or a bowl of cherries. When I watch people buy fruit at the supermarket, I notice that they just drop it into a plastic bag without taking a whiff, but it’s the smell that tells you whether a fruit has promise, is over the hill, or is not worth bothering about. Long-distant fruit, picked green from tasteless varieties, offers nothing. We have turned fruit into a “duty food”, something we eat because the government tells us to, not because it’s so good we can’t stay away from it.

Thankfully this is not true at the farmers market where you can actually follow the scent of strawberries.  If the farmers haven’t tried to rush their season by picking fruit that’s not yet ready (note to farmers: no one wants an unripe plum!) but have waited until the right moment, then there’s fruit worth talking about! We will buy good fruit because it’s that rare.

Another frustrating thing fruit is its lack of distinction in the naming department.  There are hundreds of varieties of plums, but what do we see?  Red plums and black plums. Plums can be blue, violet, yellow, gold, purple, green, black, red and all shades in between. They will have unique flavors and different uses in the kitchen. And they all have names: Coe’s Golden Drop, Pearl, Green Gage, Mirabelle. The same is true of all fruits. While we’ve learned the distinctions among vegetables and know the names of our favorites, we’re behind with fruit. And this relates directly to biodiversity, because when plums are reduced to red and black, what happens to the others? They disappear, just as hundreds of apple varieties have disappeared.

Names matter because if we don’t know what to call a something we can’t make a relationship to it and ask for it again. The taste may have been fantastic, but without a name it is completely ephemeral. How do you ask for that peach you loved the year before? “It was round, reddish,  juicy, and it was really good. It will take a great deal of specifics, probably not remembered, to lead you back to the source. A name is much more efficient.  “Do you have any Babcoks ? Suncrests? Elbertas?”

To make a more repeatable universe and encourage diversity rather than sameness, I encourage shoppers to ask the names of the foods they buy at the farmers market, then try to remember them and use them. Farmers can help enormously by posting the names. It makes us a more literate, well-informed society about the foods we eat, the good foods as well as the frightening ones. And an informed society is one that is likely to speak up for and protect biodiversity because it means something. Imagine not having those little shishito peppers you’ve come to love. Then apply that feeling to whatever else your love in the market.

Not that many generations back our ancestors (this would include my botanist father), knew very well about the pleasures and distinctions of different apples, pears, grapes and more as they fussed over their own cultivars, traded scions, or made trips each year to a particular orchard. We need to regain that knowledge and cultivate a passion for it if we don’t want to see the variety that sustains life and makes it so delicious simply disappear.

Deborah Madison’s new book is Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.

Do you sniff your fruit before buying?

Photo Credit: Scott Bauer