Tuesday, June 14, 2011

By Our Fruits Our Children Shall Know Us

A slightly different version of this piece was published in the Globe and Mail a couple of years ago. I was reminded of it recently when I bit into a sour, over-sized strawberry.

One thing has always puzzled me about my kids: They prefer vegetables to fruit. They willingly chow down on green beans, broccoli, asparagus, peas and cauliflower, salads of all types, carrots and cucumbers. But they look askance at the apples, oranges, berries and melons that I doggedly place in front of them. "It doesn't taste good " is their constant refrain. To me it tastes ... acceptable.

Perhaps I do understand why my twin daughters don't like fruit: Most of it is tasteless. Vegetables may be tasteless too, but my children's expectations of them are lower and, like most parents, I dress veggies up with vinaigrettes or butter and salt to render them more palatable. But fruit is supposed to taste good as is. As an adult, I'm used to the fact that most of the time it does not. My children, who possess the enhanced taste buds of eight-year-olds, have not yet become accustomed to flavourless berries and melons.

I wonder, then, why did I love fruit so much as a child? My parents were particular about their produce. Every Saturday, they shopped at the local Dominion for basics, but made a separate trip to stand-alone markets to buy fruits and vegetables. Even as a young child, I had a sense of seasonality, passed on from my parents. There were berries in spring and summer, along with pert plums, succulent peaches, and sweet and sour cherries from Ontario. Summer fruit, my parents called these. In the fall, we had bushels of russet and Macintosh apples. In winter, there were navel oranges and tart-sweet, white grapefruit. These were imported, but their quality was second to none because they were in season in the sunny place where they were grown.

I also have fond memories of the gap year I spent in France. There, my palate first cottoned on to the reality that tomatoes are fruit. But it wasn't just tomatoes that blew me away. I remember biting into a plump russet apple, which the French called Reinette du Canada. I found the name amusing, doubly so when I realized that even these so-called Canadian apples tasted better in France. It was the eighties by this time, and I had noticed a decline in produce quality at home. Quite simply, everything tasted better in France. When I tell my husband this, he scoffs, as he does when I reminisce about the fruit I enjoyed as a child. "Pure nostalgia," he says.

In an attempt to prove him wrong, I surf the Internet where I find evidence of a steady decline in the nutrient content of vegetables and fruits. I discover, for instance, that an apple today contains 55% less iron and 41 % less vitamin A than an apple from fifty years ago (see here and here). I email a professor of food science at the University of Georgia, Robert Shewfelt, who confirms that nutrition and flavour are linked since, for the most part, "nutrition is optimal and flavour is optimal at the same time." So perhaps those bloated, mid-winter strawberries are as bad as they seem — nutritionally deficient
and tasteless.

What, then, can a parent of fruit-averse children do? According to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, one of the most subversive things we can do today is to plant a garden. I've always admired my elderly Greek-Canadian neighbour, who plants and harvests an impressive array of produce on her small North Toronto lot, but who knew she was such a radical?

As spring arrived this year, I began to wonder if I too could become a radical. My husband was skeptical, since I've rarely put trowel to dirt in my life, but as the days grew longer and the planting season approached, I resolved to try. I purchased books with titles such as The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food and Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. I took the plunge and planted strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes in pots; I dug up some sod and stuck two raspberry plants in the ground. I watered and waited. Summer arrived, along with unprecedented rain; I watered a little less and waited some more. I became disheartened when my raspberry plants inexplicably died.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the small prickly beginnings of cucumbers appeared. The twins found a lone red strawberry amidst an abundance of runners and greenery. They shared it and pronounced it sweet! But my elation was short-lived. The strawberries stopped bearing, and the tiny cucumbers grew strangely misshapen, almost gourd-like. By summer's end, only my tomato plants were bearing well, and even they looked bedraggled and sad.
Today, as I gaze upon what remains of my garden, and peer over at my neighbour's still-lush rows, I admit I'm tempted to throw in the trowel. But I suspect that next spring, hope will trump reality. I will begin my garden anew, spurred on by the thought that, even if it takes several seasons, even if I manage to produce a mere handful of red raspberries, I might just be able to bequeath to my children a memory of redolent, in-season fruit.

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