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Duchess of Malfi's Apricots, and Other Literary Fruits, The
by: Robert Palter
University of South Carolina Press 2002, $69.95, Hardbound
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 21
How many pearls of Chinese wisdom can one find among the apples, figs, strawberries, plums, peaches, mangoes, bananas, and more than a dozen other literary fruits in this volume? They are there, though diminutively. Look for them in the chapters on all fruits in sections separated as Pits and Seeds, Wine, Orchards, Groves, Gardens, even among the Enemies and Friends of Fruit chapters.
This book is one fascinating read. It is a humanities course collection of woven sources intended to expose students to tasting literature about fruit. It does that and more. Even food professionals will be provided with hundreds of meals of and thousands of words of education about more than just this one food group.
One expects nothing less from a scholar/intellectual who honed his skills working on the Manhattan Project during World War II and ended his career as the Dana Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Trinity College at Hartford, Connecticut. Like his life experiences, this book touches scientific and humanities bases.
Visual arts, literature, even calligraphy are represented in its eight hundred ninety-two pages and seen in its thirty-five color plates, line drawings, and more. What a resource! It has technical materials about the selected fruits, historical and sociologic background among its twenty-three chapters, and horticulture, plant physiology, and many biblical and secular writings.
The role of the Chinese flowering plum motif, criticism of Johnny Appleseed, and, and, and, and and. There is no end to the breadth of its offerings. This is no ordinary writer's anthology. For example, in the sixty-three pages about citron, oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and limes, it starts advising that the term 'citrus' comes from the Greek 'kedros,' and though disputed, there are really only three true species: the pommelo which is also called the 'shaddock' and is similar to grapefruit, the mandarin also known as a 'tangerine,' and the citron. The author correctly says that the first two are believed to have originated in China. He cites Tony Harrison's A Kumquat for John Keats, and in it one reads about one of many writings, but not a single Chinese tale told.
Never mind, savor the mostly modern literary works and look for others. Bring your magnifying glass even though the introduction says 'the entire range of literary genres is represented...in some twenty-five languages (Arabic, Chinese, etc...).' Taste the very few Chinese items mixed with many, many more listed in the forty-three column 'Index of Works Cited' and the forty-two column 'Index of Artists, Authors, and Translators.'
The introduction says that 'foreign language texts are reproduced in English.' It does not tell you that some also appear in French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. At the end of the book, with the above Indexes, each chapter has a wonderful reference list. This book's genesis was a personal collection of items for a lecture called 'Reflections on Food and Literature.' The author expanded on that when preparing to teach an undergraduate course on food.
Dr. Palter sees and shares three relevant issues about the fruits he finds writings about. The chapters are arranged by type of fruit. Included are defining their characteristics, how they grow and are harvested, the phenomenology of consuming them, and their cultural roles, fruit by fruit. He says the book's single objective is to entertain and stimulate the reader with pleasurable diversity. It does and educates even those who 'think they know.'
With our Chinese bent, we loved 'The Flowering Plum: A Chinese Interlude' which briefly summarizes the extensive role this fruit has had in the Chinese culture. It alone was worth the long hours required to browse through this entertaining heavyweight. There is much culture in this volume, but still we wish it had reached a thousand pages. Then it would have been worth its weight in gold, golden delicious apples we mean, and more that is if there were an index by culture.
This great book whets the appetite and we should be grateful. However, readers would be more grateful with such an index and another of key words. Each time we read then reread a fruit chapter, we find ourselves searching for something we recall. That said, Dr. Palter, how about an equally phenomenal sequel about vegetables?