Here’s a good reason to stay alive another 10 years or so: mangosteens.
One of my favorite articles from anywhere, about anything, is this piece about David Karp in the August 2002 issue of The New Yorker. It was the first-ever (and still best) New Yorker Food Issue. It contained the silly Bill Buford piece on Mario Batali that later turned into Heat, but much more importantly, John Seabrook profiled this crazy fruit-obsessed dude named David Karp. A former heroin addict who channeled his passion for addictive, all-encompassing substances into fruit? What’s not to love? I won’t describe the article, just go and read it.
“In mid-June, I flew out to Los Angeles and joined Karp for five days of fruit work. Before this trip, I imagined that David Karp was a man who had been redeemed by fruit–someone who had found in fruit a way of escaping his demons. What I came to realize over the course of our five days together–five very long days–was that Karp had not really banished his demons at all. He’d just found a way of channeling his particular needs and talents (the desire for esoteric knowledge, the pursuit of extreme pleasure, a sympathy for shady characters, and experience in dope dealing) into a career as a purveyor of amazing fruit–a career, it turns out, that serves those needs and talents very nicely…”*
David Karp led me to mangosteens, which he describes as “the queen of fruit.” Because they are illegal on the mainland US, I’d been trying to taste them for several years, and searches in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand had been unsuccessful. Happily, last year I found them at the farmer’s market I frequent in Hawai’i. Here is the story, ripped from the pages of my journal.
I woke up today completely unaware of the momentous event that would be handed my way: my first mangosteen. Wednesdays on Kaua’i are synonymous for me with the Kapa’a farmer’s market, the strangest farmer’s market I’ve ever been to. I’m used to the cutthroat Union Square farmer’s market, where arriving after 7:30 am means you’ll miss everything special and delicious, or the laid back friendly markets I regularly visit upstate. The Kapa’a market (and most other markets on the island) is simultaneously typically Hawaiian and, most untypically, rather brutal.
The market gets a late start at 3 pm exactly. I will never exactly understand this, but the Kaua’i farmer’s markets forbid selling before the official starting time, which is signified with a quick whistle. I’ve been told this is so “none of the vendors will miss customers if they are late,” which sort of makes sense, except that it sort of doesn’t, because the entire market is over in half an hour and everything seems to sell out, because there are always more customers than produce.
It’s good for the consumer, though, because you know exactly when to arrive and you have a fair shot at getting what you want. Locals usually scurry around (this is the only time I’ve ever seen locals doing anything that could even vaguely be called “scurrying”) asking the vendors to put aside items for them, then they walk back around and pay for them after the whistle. When I first started observing the Kaua’i farmer’s markets this practice was done quietly, and not all vendors would do it, but now it seems to be standard practice and almost all vendors will write your name on your bag of sweet potato greens, taro leaves, and tangerines or, most likely, will remember your face.
It’s a fairly small market, maybe 25 or so stands, which seems like a lot except that the vast majority of stands consist of people selling what happens to grow in their yards – today I saw a shriveled old woman and her equally shriveled husband carefully arranging one bunch of apple bananas and 10 limes on a small folding table as their entire offering. I get the feeling that most of the stands are run by home gardeners selling their excess. Because it is Hawaii, delicious Asian vegetables that my upstate New York market never carries are all over the place, and I always stock up on water spinach, Thai edible flowers I’ve never seen anywhere else that are great stir-fried and terrible raw, long thin eggplant as skinny as fingers, and Chinese long beans. Although I pride myself on my produce ID chops, there are almost always vegetables I can’t identify. The Filipino, Hawaiian, and Thai women selling them are usually happy to tell me how to cook them, though their answers are almost always “stir-fry!” or “Put in soup!” Sounds good to me.
There are a few stands run by bigger farms, and several organic stands. Of course, there is lots of fruit: strawberry papayas, super sweet pineapples, regular bananas, squarish ice cream bananas, tiny apple bananas, oranges, mountains of tangerines (so many people have tangerine trees that I’ve seen signs on the side of the road selling them 10 for a $1), Meyer lemons, grapefruit, cherimoyas, heart-shaped atemoyas, sweetsops, soursops, lychees, rambutans, star fruit, durian, jackfruit, breadfruit…and, with a sharp intake of breath I saw a prettily hand-scripted sign for mangosteen.
Mangosteen! I grabbed my sweetheart’s arm and pointed. Mangosteen! We both yelled. Because it was before 3 we calmly kept walking and deciding what lines we were going to wait in until the whistle. I waited at the mangosteen stand, which was run by an interesting woman a little older than me. She said she is the only commercial mangosteen grower in the US – which makes sense since mangosteens are illegal on the mainland because they supposedly carry a pest, and since the trees take 7-15 years to bear fruit.
We bought 5 for $3 each (!) and rushed home. Here’s how the food writer R. W. Apple describes the mangosteen: “At the stem end, mangosteens have four waxy sepals. At the other, they have four to eight flat, woody lobes, arranged in a pretty rosette. That much I had known. What I had not known…is that the number of those lobes corresponds exactly to the number of fruit segments arranged inside as exquisitely as the jewels inside a Fabergé egg.”
This cute video has info on how to eat a mangosteen, but I just squeeze mine from top to bottom to open them. Note that they call mangosteens the king of fruits, but I always thought that was durian. Then again, the other day I played an entire game of chess in which I was trying to prevent my queen from being checkmated, so I obviously know nothing about royalty.
The flavor of a mangosteen has been widely described as a custardy, ice creamy, and highly perfumed, and these are all true. It’s a perfectly balanced flavor – tart and sweet and rich and light all at the same time. Truly a royal fruit.
Footnotes, links and notes:
*At this point it becomes necessary, before we go any further, to talk about privilege. Yes, only a small sliver of society gets to indulge its strange passions in the way that David Karp has. But sometimes it’s necessary to pretend that the world is a more equal place and we are all allowed to indulge our obsessions, not just those of us who are lucky or white and male and have some scratch. When I pretend we live in that world – which is necessary to do in order to take a break from working for that world to come about – I deeply appreciate obsessive people and their strange passions. When I can’t keep up that illusion, people like David Karp generally irritate me. So let’s play pretend for a minute, and let’s talk about fruit.
-Very nice R. W. Apple Mangosteen article here.
-Mangosteen.com, a hilariously lovely made-with-love website.
-Irradiated mangosteens are now being brought into the US from Hawai’i (last year I believe they were at Gristedes in Manhattan for $11 a lb), but for me they will be forever linked with the sun and salt air of my favorite home away from home. It doesn’t feel right to eat mangoes, avocadoes, and mangosteens in Upstate NY in January. I want to keep mangosteens as a yearly treat. However, if your only option is a mainland irradiated supermarket mangosteen, I give you permission to try it. Don’t blame me, however, if it tastes terrible.