The food that has been called "the king of fruits" has probably never been tasted by the great majority of inhabitants of the temperate zones of the Western world. It has also been called "the apple of the tropic," in recognition of its status as the most widely eaten and the most liked food of hot countries. It is, of course, the mango.

"I consider the mango one of the most delectable fruits with which God graced an already bountiful world," Euell Gibbons wrote. "Yet, when I was in the tropics, I saw tourists from temperate regions refuse mangoes because they didn't like peaches. Such people have my pity but hardly my respect."

Said Linda Wolfe in "The Cooking of Caribbean Island": "Of the Caribbean fruits available in the United States, I think the mango is the most exquisite, although I find its elusive flavor, which seems to combine so many tantalizing, dreamlike hints of other fruits, almost impossible to describe. A Haitian friend insisted that I describe it as a combination between a pear and an apricot. A friend on St. Kitts thinks it is like a melon mixed with a pineapple. A Puerto Rican woman said it has the flavor of an apricot and a texture between that of an avocado and a cassava melon. Her husband contended that it is a cross between a peach, a melon and a banana."

Mrs. Wolfe's own opinion is, "Mostly peachlike, with hints of banana, melon, apricot and pineapple and with a little bit of plum." I would stay with her first opinion that it is almost impossible todescribe except that I would strike out the word almost.

This high opinion of the mango even among Westerners reaches well back into the past according to the "Encyclopedia Britannica," which unfortunately fails to give us the full names of the qualifications of the persons it cites. It says that in 1727 a certain Hamilton reported the Goa mango to be "reckoned the largest and most delicious to the taste of any in the world, and I may add, the wholesomest and best tasted of any fruit in the World." Even earlier, in 1673, a similarly unidentified Fryer is credited with the opinion, "that for Taste, the Nectarine, Peach and APricot fall short."

In the face of this chorus of praise it is disconcerting to find that many Westerners who taste a mango for the first time do not like it. Even the Larousse gastronomic encyclopedia notes that it has a certain pungency that is not pleasing to everybody. One reason for this reaction is that unless you are rich enough to be able to afford what has remained a luxury food outside of its native tropics because of its extreme perishability, you will probably be offered an inferior (because it's cheaper) variety of mango which misrepresents this splendid fruit as everybody in the tropics knows it.

While there are about 30 species of mango, almost none reach the market, except the descendants of, Mangifera indica . But its ungrafted, less expensively produced fruits are fibrous and thus rather disagreeable to eat. While often, underlying the luscious mango flavor, there is a perceptible, or even assertive, and unwelcome taste of turpentine. Both of these factors have been eliminated from the better grafted varieties.

A relic of the stringy nature of the unimproved fruit is the impossibility of separating its flesh from its stone. This is large and in about the same proportion to the fruit as a whole as the stone of an avocado. This makes it a little difficult to handle. My own method is to use a spoon to work my way around the stone, scooping the flesh out of the inedible rind, but even so, as the mango is moist, fingerbowl is often useful at the end.

The mango was cultivated before history began, so its origin is not on record but it is believed to have first appeared in the region running from eastern India through Burma, although the "Encyclopedia Britanica," which accepts this birthplace in Vol. 14, shifts to southern India in Vol. 9. So far as I know, no one has suggested western India, although today the best mangoes of India are supposed to be those of Bombay. If any origin other than the generally accepted one were to be sought, I should be tempted to look toward the Philippine Islands where most varieties breed true from seed.

This is not the case anywhere, else, so mangoes are usually propagated by some form of grafting. Trees whose seeds do not necessarily produce offspring identical with their parents (the apple, for instance) are suspected of being not pure strains, but hybrids. Even manifera indica, considered the sire of many other mangoes, does not breed true and is therefore probably the product of a mixture of species. Yet it seems to be established that the fruit reached the Philippines no earlier than two centuries ago. Perhaps only a single species was imported which by breeding (having no other species present with which to hybridize) sloughed off the newer increments from its genes and thus became if not a pure variety, at least a purified one.

The ancient Greeks and Romans did not know the mango, despite a Pompeiian wall painting in which some persons have professed to recognize one. It was perhaps a poorly painted peach unless some veteran of the army of Alexander the Great which invaded India brought back a description of it, even a specimen. This would necessarily have been inedible by the time it reached the Mediterreanean. The first known reference to the mango from outside its native territory was provided by a Chinese traveler, Hwen Tsang, who mentioned it in the first half of the 7th century A.D. The first Westerner to report it seems to have been Friar Jordanus in 1328, followed by John de MArignolli in 1349. Marco Polo missed it.

In ancient India, the mango played an important part in the folklore and religion. According to legend, Buddha was represented with a mango grove so that he might rest in its shade. That the legend speaks of a grove is significant of the special esteem enjoyed by the mango because it was not customary in ancient India to plant large orchards of particular trees.

One other exception we know about was also provided by the mango. The Mogul Emperor Akbar, who ruled at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, planted 100,000 mango trees near Darbhana in a plantation called Lakh Bagh (lakh, means 100,000). The importance of the mango in India is underlined by one of its names, the Sanskrit aam , which also means food in general. The mango is, indeed, a staple food which is often picked unripe to be eaten with salt and pepper as a vegetable. It is also picked unripe fruit is preferred. It only becomes a sweet dessert when it has ripened.

The spread of the mango beyond its native territory was slow because the fruit is extremely perishable and even the seeds lose their vitality quickly. Transplanted in other climates, they often grow without producing profitable yields. Mangoes are believed to have reached Africa about 1,000 A.D., brought there by travelers from Persia. Their first implantation in the Western hemisphere took place in Brazil in 1700. About 40 years later they were transferred also to the West Indies and to tropical Australia about the same time. In Latin America, mango trees have shown a tendency to escape from cultivation and sow themselves from seed, which usually results in inferior fruits.They are also planted there along roadsides as shade trees, providing free food for the poor when they ripen.

The only area in the United States where mangoes can be grown with an assurance of success is southern Florida. They have often fruited in California but they are not dependable crop there, being highly sensitive to even small amounts of frost. The date usually given for the introduction of the mango into Florida in 1889. But actually mangoes were being grown there 60 or 65 years ealier. 1889 is the date when the United States Department of Agriculture had improved grafted varieties planted in that state. This was the beginning of a modest mango-growing industry capable of supplying the small domestic demand, mostly for preserves like chutney (in which mangoes are but one ingredient). Florida's production is minuscule compared to that of India, the world's most important producer of mangoes. India has 2,200,000 acres planted to mango trees and produces between 5,000,000 and 7,500,000 tons yearly, between 75 and 80 per cent of the world total.

Originally Florida grew only the Indian mulgoba , probably the variety most widely planted in the parent country. It is superb in quality but gives only moderate yields. Florida, therefore, developed from the mulgoba a mango called the Haden. This, without too much sacrifice of quality, is more productive, of large size, and of attractive appearance. The Haden is now the chief kind grown commercially but Florida produces small amounts of at least 50 other varieties, including the red mango, which is red; the green mango, which is green; and the plain mango, which is as nearly colorless as a fruit can be.