The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot, by Chip Brantley
The Perfect Fruit:
What seems like an eternity ago, when I was still posting semi-regularly here, Chip Brantley contacted me about doing a series of fruit breeder profiles for his website, CookThink. Then a few personal crises intervened on my side, things got postponed, work picked up, and it never happened. But in the course of our conversation he mentioned that he was writing a book on pluots. I thought this was a pretty cool idea--there aren't many decent books on stone fruit, and certainly not on pluots specifically, and I said I'd like to read it when it was done.
That was probably a year ago. I'd honestly kind of forgotten about it. When you talk to serious fruit enthusiasts, you'll find that an awful lot of them are writing books about fruit. I think it comes from reading too many books about fruit. (For the record, in keeping with my obligation is a fruit fanatic, I'm writing a book, on grape breeders, or at least I was until my hard drive crash ate about half of it. I have to say my enthusiasm has waned a bit since). But anyway, I didn't necessarily expect that I would ever see the pluot book.
But I have to give Chip credit: not only did he write the pluot book, but he remembered my interest in it, and a couple weeks ago a copy appeared in my mail box.
I haven't been so pleased with a fruit book in a long time. It's not because it's the perfect book on pluots. I'd have written a very different book on pluots: more species info, more chromosomes, more history, more Luther Burbank. My book would have been twice as long, and it would have had lots of photos and tables, and probably nobody but me and a handful of stone fruit breeders would have been able to stomach reading it from cover to cover.
Brantley didn't write that, book, and I'm glad he didn't. Because this book does something else that no other book I've read has really done, at least not as well, and that is to capture what it's like on the inside of the fruit industry. The pluot is important to this story mostly because it's the central theme, but it in a very real sense, it's not what the book's about. The book is about the people and the business that have grown up around stone fruits--the breeders, the growers, the shippers, even the grocery stores. But one could have written the same story about strawberries, or apples, or citrus.
When people ask me what I do for a living, the next question (if there is a next question--I get a lot of blank stares of incomprehension) is what it is I do all day. And I dutifully try to explain, which inevitably entails a long complicated explanation of what it is the company does and how I fit in there and then I notice they're either losing interest or have wound up with one of those blank stares after all. This book is that explanation, only readable and interesting. For the people I really want to understand the business I work in, I will be recommending this book.
But even if you don't have a fruit breeder in the family that you're seeking to understand, I think this is still an important book, because so few people really understand the machinery that stands behind the produce they buy at the store. There's a lot of ignorance and a lot of misconceptions about agriculture and about farmers (there's virtually no misconceptions about fruit breeders, because hardly anybody knows we exist, though we do occasionally get accused of genetic engineering).There is a lot more complexity to the stone fruit industry than probably occurred to most folks, which is probably really the case with most industries. And as we follow both the development of the pluot and the players on the stone fruit stage, of the shifting loyalties and million dollar gambles, we start to get a picture of the constant balancing act these growers need to perform.
I've had so many conversations with people in which the grower is cast as some evil profiteer who cares nothing about quality, gleefully foisting crappy tasting fruit onto the hapless customers and cashing his fat checks. Many people don't seem to realize that the vast majority of growers want to grow good fruit. They want a product they can be proud of, that they can feel good putting their family name on. Unfortunately, many are working within the bounds of a system that doesn't put much value on quality, where price is dictated by volume and convenience. It's also a system in which margins are often slim, and the grower who chooses to emphasize quality but doesn't find a way to get paid for it sometimes can't pay his bills at the end of the season. (And sometimes it doesn't matter what they do--some seasons no one makes money).
Stone fruit have suffered a great deal in the current system, though perhaps not uniquely so. I didn't think I liked fresh peaches until I was 28 and in grad school in Arkansas, and I actually tasted tree-ripe peaches. A good peach is just about as good as fruit can get. Same goes for plums. I haven't had a plum I truly liked from a grocery store yet, nor even from a farmer's market, but I've had plenty of good ones out of people's back yards. Mass producing food is inevitably a compromise, but the stone fruit seem to have been more compromised than most.
The book ends on a hopeful note, that maybe this system is starting to change, and the pluot is held up as an example of how things are shifting. And I hope he's right. Certainly store-bought pluots have raised the bar for stone fruit. But I'm still continually disheartened by how many people just don't notice. People who will happily munch on the nine-month-old 'Delicious' apple and not notice the distinct resemblance to damp cardboard, or buy boxes full of half-green strawberries. I think somehow some of these people just like the concept of eating fruit in some way completely detached from the actual experience of doing it. These are the people who have set the tone for a long time. We have crappy produce in our stores solely because people like this will happily pay a reasonable price for them. If the only fruit people paid money for was good fruit, then there would only be good fruit in the stores, and growers would be paid to produce good fruit. That's how capitalism works.
As I have said, it's not as technically or historically focused as many single fruit books are, which was initially a bit of a disappointment to me. (It's worth noting that the Washington Post's review, while positive, thinks he gets too caught up in "long tedious fruit genealogies", so much of this is probably in the eye of the beholder). There's not a ton of science, beyond a basic explanation of how breeding is done and a brief overview of Prunus. Nor does Luther Burbank, father of the plumcot and probably the greatest plant breeder ever, get his fair share, in my view. Instead the star of this story is Floyd Zaiger, probably the closest thing to Burbank alive today, who took Burbank's idea and turned it into commercially viable varieties. I've wanted to write a piece about Zaiger Genetics for ages, but for now you'll just have to settle for this article or the Dave Wilson's Nursery catalog of Zaiger varieties, always an entertaining read in itself.
Brantley's writing is engaging, occasionally humorous, and infused with passion for his subject. His excitement about pluots has that slightly unfathomable quality that I find all good fruit authors have. In the narrative of his pluot research, I can see shadows of my own journeys of discovery into various fruit. Not everyone will get that, I suspect. But I also suspect most people, even those with no particular interest in pluots, will be taken by the string of characters Brantley visits in the course of his quest. The book is a quick, easy, and rewarding read, and I heartily recommend it to any one who eats fruit (which I would assume is essentially any one reading this blog).
You can buy it from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, among other places.