Apples are the primary fruit of my family, the language of early breakfasts eaten before the sun rises or carted with bowls into the car while I’m rushed to early-morning figure skating conditioning. Their taste is generic, sure, but also crisp, sweet, and barely juicy. They are the baseline of fruits, the origin point of a Cartesian plane where the outward-facing vectors of other fruits represent more eclectic, unique tastes. People say that apples aren’t special because they are so universal, but I find that to be a rather human-centric evaluation of apples. Just because they’re widely available in American groceries doesn’t mean we should forget to appreciate their universal excellence and why they became the poster child for fruity freshness in the first place.
Apples are tame and ubiquitous, but they were also my initiation into another genre of food. Their sometimes clinical, manufactured bite brings to mind the distinctly American tradition of green-apple-flavored Jell-O shots at a Halloween-themed gathering at a classmate’s house, fall of senior year, where a girl in a fireman’s costume showed me how to detach the bright green gel from the little plastic cups by swirling the edges with one’s pinky nail. I copied her motions and scooped it into my mouth, then winced. It was bitter, overly shot through with the taste of burnt plastic, the apple’s taste reduced to a zingy undertone of sweet sterility. (Later, we discovered that the red shots, flavored with cherry, were much better.)
My clearest recollections of apricots are the tiny dried caps of orange sold at local Trader’s Joes, which my mom would tote home all through middle and high school every few months, telling me they were good for digestion. This is true; apricots provide repositories of iron, which serve as cofactors that facilitate enzymatic activity, amongst other purposes in the body. We munched on them side-by-side while working at the dinner table, my mother often responding to work emails and me scribbling away at trigonometry homework. We ate them fresh too, chewing the plump, glowing globes that snuggled fuzzily into the palm of a child’s hand.
The labels on the store-dehydrated bags were often orange, pale green, emerald, or beige, with ink drawings of apricots to convey a natural tone. These were aimed at, I presumed, customers interested in an au natural, organic diet, as is typical of Silicon Valley and Trader Joe’s marketing. My family isn’t your typical Silicon Valley clan of fitness moguls; we don’t take family jogs or weekly hikes in our matching outfits, as I know some of my classmates do, but we do subscribe to self-set standards of what we consider ‘dessert.’ We’re not the only Chinese American family that considers a proper after-dinner snack to be a bowl of iced, cut fruits, instead of cakes or cookies, and we always take walks after dinner if there is light out.
Avocados are the universal additive for Silicon Valley food, which is to say they are beautifully bland and texturally complementary to the harder crunchiness of crisp salads, whole-grain beet chips, and quinoa that are sold by vendors like Whole Foods and Sweetgreen in nearly every downtown. In any salad I buy, I’m happily surprised to find thin slices of the waxy, buttery fruit stacked underneath a cluster of leaves.
At small downtown diners frequented by one of my best friends and me in our morning free period, avocados are a must; they were also the muscle-bolstering snack that my parents’ friends delivered to their skinny, allergenic son to make him better at athletics. Avocados are proven to facilitate healthy blood lipid profiles and enhance fat-soluble vitamins from itself or other foods consumed by an individual.
If you ask me what they add, I can’t really give you an answer. The taste is indescribable, not in their godliness, but in their normality. They smell like musky nothingness and feel like a corrugated rug in the palm. Stripped of their proclaimed healthy properties, they are strange, strange fruits that do not match their sparklier brethren.
Pliant and mouth-filling, bananas are the edible equivalent of a moth if apples are a butterfly. These cylindrical yellow telephones spill out of the baskets placed in the center of our house, the last-minute snack grabbed before a junior-year track meet and the forgotten friend left to turn brown in the pantry. Bananas are underrated for all they do for us. We appreciate your service and salute your uncomplaining roost in the back-shelves of the world. Their comical slip-and-slide plot devices were a frequent recurrence in 喜羊羊与灰太狼, “Pleasant Wolf and Big Bad Wolf,” which I remember in velvet glimpses of brilliant screens, sweaty and odorless in the Beijing apartment of my youth.
Blackberries are a rarer treat in my household. A few times a year, my mom will wash the indigo-black honeycombs until they glisten, leaving smears of red-mauve juice on the edges of the ceramic bowl. We stab them with miniature forks and chew on them until they burst and melt in the mouth. When I imagine blueberries in the wild, I see them nestled in icicles and snow, since we only ever eat them in the winter, when wind is howling against our roof and shuddering the birch trees in our yard.
When I describe winter, it is lashing and bitter – for California, perhaps one of the world’s most mild, temperate regions. By contrast, my father grew up in Zhijiang, a city in the Yichang Province of China. His father was a schoolteacher at a local elementary school and they lived in a small, battered building on a street miles from my grandfather’s workplace where my father attended until sixth grade, since middle school begins in seventh grade in China.
My father trekked miles on the snowy streets to arrive at the school gates, shouldering a heavy, bulging backpack and wrapped in threadbare, woolen coats, sometimes slipping and landing in icy gutters full of hardened frost. Bicycles were a luxury he discovered when he started at Tsinghua University in Beijing. On his way home, the sky darkening, he would stare up at the sky on his back and imagine the warm fire at home and his father’s raspy voice. The two of them slept in a cramped, tiny bed, my father’s slender, grubby limbs tangled with my grandfather’s sturdy bowlegs. There were no bowls of blackberries for them, but there was safety and security, all the same.
When my grandfather passed away this spring, I saw my father cry for the first time. His genial placidity – present even in the face of my grandmother’s death two years ago, much to my disbelief – melted into quiet stripes of tears. He wrote a farewell letter on his Notes app, his last line being, 等等我。过几年，我也来了. “Wait for me. In a few years, I’ll be with you.” Later, sitting down to eat dinner under the moth-like glaze of our lights, I thought all of his pores might close up, his body becoming a vessel for air. If he shriveled into a puppet, my mother and I would have to spoon-feed him mashed fruits, just like they shoveled pulp into my waiting mouth as a red-faced baby.
In elementary school, I accompanied my mother to her weekly visits to Produce and Trader Joe’s, the local grocery stores next to each other in a plaza, where blueberries were sold in glittering stacks on the cardboard-box tables out front.
Blueberries were sold exclusively in these flat, square-shaped plastic containers, the lids buckled together by snap-in divots and the surfaces full of holes to, presumably, ventilate the berries. When I see a container of this size and shape, never more than six inches tall, I will think, blueberries. They’re miniature gems of lush, green-white flesh, dotted with tiny brown seeds, a perfect explosion of teeth-licking tartness through blue-swirled skin.
It’s always a surprise to bite into a blueberry. Some are tight and sour; others are mushy and sweet. I grab handfuls from a bowl dotted with their translucent purple juice, soaked and scrubbed with lukewarm tap water.
In its unpeeled form, a green sphere webbed with amniotic white lace, cantaloupe is nonexistent in the house. Instead, I see it in sleek, pale trapezoids of orange, a shade that is less Mediterranean than apricots and more saturated than peaches, which my mother meticulously slices during late nights. These are dripping and honeyed, perhaps one of the Ideal Fruits, alongside the apple. There is no obscurity to its taste; it is a people-pleaser, a coquettish tease, a zealous student who pleases his teacher by doubling his own workload. Its name is the butt of many puns: can’t-elope.
I only ever eat cantaloupe with a set of miniature forks that my father brought home from his business trips when I was a child. China, Africa, Spain, the Philippines; my dad spent months in each location, toting manicured gifts home each time. Each of these forks has a shiny white shaft swirled with detailed paintings of flowers and and three times the length of a pinky finger, and when I grip one, I feel transported to an ornate afternoon tea-time, soon to watch a horse-race under the sun while sipping organic juices – a weird fusion of hippie craziness and Elizabethan propriety.
Trees sway in the summer wind, as light as cloth on a mannequin; the sky is blue without end, its emptiness swallowing the sun. We have to paw aside inflorescences full of thick leaves, some jagged at the edges by a bug’s mouth, to find the cherries hanging underneath, small and hidden. We twist them off and drop them into wooden, rubber-matted pails, where the small red rocks of cherries knock against each other and suffer gashes in their fragile skin.
The family of my father’s long-time friend accompanies us on this cherry-picking orchard expedition in Watsonville, California. The other father and mine were co-founders of a communications start-up in Beijing, and the two of them mill behind, while our mothers exchange quips. Their young son and I are about the same age, and I remember our friendship in a flew flashes of childhood insanity, pranks pulled in restaurants to disapproving glances.
I can imagine their family and mine sitting down at the end, rinsing our cherries under the orchard’s faucets, tossing away the mushed or molded rejects, until our buckets glistened with water and freshness. Eating cherries are not just delicious, but also fun: you rip the body from the stem and taste the dark, rich sweetness, it’s suppleness cut short by the hard pit your lips instantly surround. You isolate that pit and spit it out gingerly, then enjoy the feast of maroon fruit broken open in your mouth. Frozen cold in a refrigerator and then taken out to eat in summer’s zenith, cherries are the indelibility of freedom packed into two swift motions.
Last month, hastily memorizing Chinese vocabulary for a pre-college placement test, I remembered that the first character of 樱桃, “cherry,” is homophonic to the word for “eagle.” When I gingerly eat them now, my nails click purposefully. I imagine myself a regal queen, either transported to a bucolic childhood or slimmed to a sensual goddess, powerful, taloned, and proud.
Placing dried dates into hot water or barley tea, along with goji berries and dehydrated longans, is a calming, smoky remedy for stress. In the last two years of high school, my mother brews me a cup of boiling water with these ingredients, telling me to wait until the flavor seeps into the liquid. After ten minutes, the water will cool off slightly, and its surface will shimmer with the oils emitted from the date, whose pruned, wrinkled body has now swelled in flotation.
Bright and electrically pink, grapefruits are the subject of many a poem I have read relating to human anatomy, along with pomegranates and guavas; you can likely imagine why. At a local Asian grocery store, my mother found a type of yellow grapefruit, the color of watery lemons, that are sweeter than the acidic tang of the traditional grapefruit, and we suck their phosphorescent, honeycombed slices from cottony white sheathes while watching a Chinese TV show on Saturday nights, alongside heated almonds that we microwave in slices of tin foil and cups of goji-date water.
These movie nights are our rare moments of relaxation after weeks of sprinting towards our myriad goals. 琅琊榜, or “Nirvana in Fire,” is the undisputed favorite, which tells the story of a mysterious monk-type-guy – it’s hard to explain his identity and profession without going into more detail – who is forced out of his reclusive living with the martial arts masters in the mountains to grow entangled in the fight of several princes for the emperor’s throne. It is deeply patriotic, beautifully troubled, and well-characterized; the men are heroic and flawed, and the women three-dimensional, empathetic, and bold.
Another member of the Ideal Fruit family, purple and green grapes are the fruit of late evenings, post-exercise exhaustion, and pure happiness. The long purple ones are like quail’s eggs of mauve, cranberry-stained chocolate, soft and mushy and coated in water, while the green ones are crispier, freckled with brown, like sacs of crystal. These are the fruits my mom and I eat most often at night, sharing a bowl in the center of our wooden table.
At our old house, lemon trees filled the edges of our backyard, sprouting up from the tanbark into waving giants that peered over the fence into our neighbor’s house. They swelled positively plumply with lemons, showering the ground with dead foliage every season, and we snapped off the bulging fruits, cut them, and made lemonade periodically for dinner parties.
Squeezing them by hand into our chipped mugs and adding in economic spritzes of sugar and honey, the lemons repeatedly dissolved into acerbic, tasteless sourness. Nevertheless, we forgot our lesson every half-year and resolved to try again. At these backyard barbecues, after children and adults drank this homemade lemon-juice from sweaty Dixie cups, the adults cooked Costco-bought steaks in our trusty red grill and arranged foiled platters of string beans, noodles, and fried rice on the table, I took the kids on adventures around our yard. We raced across the jelly-bean-shaped vat of grass as I stubbornly instructed everyone to be careful of slugs and snails.
Back then, time passed in glitzy flashes. There was no dance of social will-I, won’t-I‘s that crisps moments in irrefutable memory, dragging time out into longer, emptier blocks in the mind.
We lift these spiky crucibles from their netted sacks and peel them open in a scrabble of fingernails. Their shells are not hard, but tough and tensile, and tear open to reveal the most tender, solid globes of lychee flesh, the equivalent of the cleanest highest-C on a piano, streaming rivulets of juice. Like cherries, they are an ephemeral joy, with the pit inside forming much of its bulk. (Longans are even worse: sweeter and flightier, but the flesh is just a thin lining around the pit, so large that it turns the entire fruit a light brown, thus christening it dragon’s eye – 龙眼, long yan – in Mandarin Chinese.)
In one memory, my father, mother, and I sit around our dinner table and peel lychees, dropping the shells into a heap in a bowl. My parents give me their peeled lychees first, making a pile for me to eat, since I am much slower than them.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? I could wax poetic about mangoes: with the fiber and dewiness of champagne, and the burbly, clean balm of wet leaves in a forest. My mother teaches me to peel them slowly, showing me how to position the thumb just below the knife’s direction, how to urge the blade underneath the skin to let the heavy green-red peel rise off slowly, like an elderly man shedding his winter coat. I position myself and the mango just over our trash can. My first movements are jerky, the skin sliding off in ragged hunks, but I acclimate quickly.
For the first five years of my life, I lived in China with my relatives, where my yao yao, my father’s cousin, took care of me in her home in Shenzhen for a few months. In the mornings, I accompanied her to the elementary school where she worked as a teacher, lying on the metal cabinets in her office and watching her play farming games on her computer.
She was lively and petal-like, and in the afternoons, she would spring to underground supermarkets, towing me through flaps of plastic bands down an escalator whose walls were lined with plastic slippers and bargain deals. The subterranean shops sprawled out before us in dizzying heaps of crinkling wrappers and candies, stuffed pots and pans, and new appliances and beauty products. The candy section was often a weigh-it-yourself table full of different gummies, Jell-Os, and jam-filled marshmallows: mouth-watering to a child. But my yao yao tugged me along and instead bought several dragonfruits which looked like a stork’s egg to me as a child, flagrantly magenta and spiked all over with greenish tips.
At home, she cut them with a knife, and the fruit fell open on the cutting board. They were the most lyrical, diaphanous white spheres, swimming with tadpoles of black seeds. The opposite of richness. Dragonfruits are the most humble of them all, shielding a simple purity inside a flashy exterior.
Like blueberries, each strawberry is a surprise. My mother uses a small knife to make an incision at the top and excise the leaves, and the surrounding cluster of root and stem, so we can eat the strawberries whole. She will eat the ones that are white and unripe so I can have the sweet ones. When I remember to (which is shamefully infrequent because we mostly eat strawberries while working), I compete with her for this, grabbing the white ones sooner. Many mothers, especially those who raise their children predominantly alone, are self-sacrificial in a way that makes their children feel both burning twinges of admiration and inexplicable guilt for the smallest acts of kindness.
In the most lavish dinners and lunches at restaurants in Beijing or Zhijiang, hosted by my maternal and paternal relatives and family friends, watermelon juice was the ultimate luxury for kids, offered to me every time by kind-faced waiters at the behest of the hosts. When I peer inside a tall glass of icy, mellow watermelon juice, a few cream seeds and ice cubes floating inside, I think of roast duck, black granite counters, and closed doors. I think of chewing rinds of watermelon larger than my face, shirtless with my hair in a sky-high ponytail at age 3, in my da yao yao‘s (my yao yao‘s older sister) house, where, afterwards, my cousins Xian Xian and Jin Ming will take me out to drive a toy car through lush fields of lettuce, or lotus, or a plant that ripples like the dry sea of time. I think of a pair of hands, compact, efficient, and just slightly snaked with green veins, that wield a knife and a cutting board below the perpetually-open window of my house, where the wind drifts in every day, unstoppable.