On one of my afternoon walks around the Djerassi grounds, I see a bright scrap of red set far back in the hunch of a thorny bush. The color draws my eye, but as I crouch down to look close, it’s clear that the berry isn’t ready to be eaten. Flat red and unglossy, it has the shape of a finished thing, the drupes lined up and articulated with precision—but it is still just an object, not yet a food, and to sample it would be a mistake. I check back each week as I walk past the vacant space, and by the end of the month it is ripe and ready and soft to the touch.
While walking the ranch day after day, I start to learn the look of a perfect blackberry. Coincidentally, they tend to be the hardest to get to, the hardest to reach. From within the shade of a tunnel of thorns, they catch the smallest morsels of sunlight and reflect it outward: a glossy, round black that gleams, promising a sweet taste and fingertips stained magenta. Eating them straight out of the bushes, I discover more links. The berries covered with pollen have a cloudier, savory taste, the long, dense glossy ones have the brightest, most vivid flavor. And for pure, undiluted sweetness, there is nothing better than the rounder blackberries, the ones with fewer drupes, the ones that look a bit overinflated. The ones that struggle mightily to contain themselves.
The gaze I apply to the wild trailside is the same one I use in the aisles of the grocery store, searching for the most symmetrical of oranges from a bin the size of a plastic kiddie pool. I still feel like a hunter there, even if it is like shooting fish in a barrel. I lift apple after shiny apple out of the display when they sit in a pyramid, stacked like building blocks. I’m looking for one among the clones that calls out to me—its surface a little smoother beneath the wax, its crimson a little brighter, deeper, riper, or more realistic. I take in the dimples on the surface of the skin, the accidental bruises, the stray dust in the hollow by the base of the stem.
In the fall, you can drive up to an orchard and gather up a bag of my favorite variety, the Crispin—a cross between the mellow, bruiseable Golden Delicious and the fresh, crunchy Fuji—and though all the apples come from the same family of trees, the same square mile of land, each is has a face all its own, knobby or lopsided, knotty and marred by patches of rough brown skin. Apple picking is visual labor, and so is grocery shopping in its own way—the face of each individual piece of fruit secondary to the spectacle of their plenty. A less uniform apple would be unstackable, would be distracting, would upset the whole cart.
But in the grocery store, the signs I’ve learned to read in the orchard and field take on a new meaning, the signals detached from their source, untethered and floating freely in an ambiguous space. The gloss on a strawberry and its lipstick color communicate ripeness and sweetness, but its roots lie in R&D—the industrial manufacture of a berry that travels well, reddens early and maintains a full, firm shape throughout the process of harvest, packing, transport. A semiotics of fake ripeness lives in the white flesh, packed in plastic clamshells, the enticing, underflavored berries bred to be jumbo. Their shape like the broad, steroidal back of a professional bodybuilder. What is there to love about food that reveals only one of its sides, that comes pre-ripened and then goes bad, that shows itself but tells so little? Looks can be deceiving—but food, against the tongue, rarely is.
On the ranch, I've been reading Braiding Sweetgrass, a book of essays by botanist and Potawatomi Nation Citizen Robin Wall Kimmerer. In it she writes evocatively about her relationship to strawberries as a metaphor for the way in which market capitalism compromises relationships and reciprocity:
"In those childhood fields, waiting for strawberries to ripen, I used to eat the sour white ones , sometimes out of hunger but mostly from impatience. I knew the long-term results of my short-term greed, but I took them anyway. Fortunately, our capacity for self-restraint grows and develops like the berries beneath the leaves, so I learned to wait....The commodity economy has been here on Turtle Island for four hundred years, eating up the white strawberries and everything else. But people have grown weary of the sour taste in their mouths. A great longing is upon us, to live again in a world full of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze."
(Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 31-32.)