The other day, as we walked past a fruit stand, my friend Emery asked me how to peel a mango. “There are a lot of ways,” I said, “but lately I use a vegetable peeler. And then I hold it over the kitchen sink and —” at this point, I opened my mouth, Godzilla-style, and with my hands made a motion of shoving a thing into it.
But that’s not my favorite way to eat a mango. After I peel it, trying to grip the wet flesh gently so I don’t slip and skin my palm, my favorite way is to cut it carefully. To slice as close to the core as possible, I make a deep cut into the center of each rounded side, along the equator of the fruit, until the knife hits the pit. Now I know where to make a perpendicular cut, from the stem end to the dimpled bottom, yielding oval cheeks, fleshy and golden and free of the stringy bits that get stuck in your teeth.
I never buy already-cut fruit. It’s an efficiency that dismisses the beauty of ripeness. Cutting fruit is also the kind of time-slowing, almost meditative practice that we need to cultivate. Peeling an orange can be done in the midst of a daydream, but cutting a mango or pineapple or apple requires a bit more effort and attention. It’s a small way to love yourself — or others. It’s a nurturing sort of nourishment.
Emery, my friend Erika’s son, grew up in Southern California, the fruit basket of America. Erika’s kitchen is bright, with windows along one side and expansive countertops, and always, always a pile of fruit. The Meyer lemon tree in her backyard is especially robust, so lemons are constant. In the cooler months, piles of speckled green pears, wine-colored apples and blood oranges mimic a Renaissance still-life. Come summer, cherries tumble out of bowls, and the fragrance of strawberries and peaches, musky and sweet, fills the room. But the most inviting thing about Erika’s kitchen is the simple thing she does with the fruit anytime someone is around: She cuts it up.
In August, when melons arrive at Santa Monica’s farmers markets, Erika picks out heavy ones, rinses them off, sits them on her wooden board and cuts into them, carefully, while chatting or humming. Swiftly, she halves and then seeds them before slicing the fruit into waning-moon wedges, thin and long, and setting them in a shallow dish. Then — and this happens so quickly it could go unnoticed — she takes a piece for herself and has a bite while pushing the bowl in the general direction of anyone who is around.
This nonverbal invitation is all the encouragement anyone needs. Freshly cut, perfectly ripe, in-season fruit is marvelously tempting. But the action of preparing fruit is so quotidian that it doesn’t seem special, which is precisely why it’s important to notice that it is.
When I was a kid, a few times a year, my father would cut up mangoes and avocados, the fruit he grew up picking off trees in Puerto Rico. There was always a basket of fruit in the kitchen, but it was rarely any good. Fruit in the Midwest, with its long winters, doesn’t really get interesting until Michigan cherries arrive. Then come the watermelons, large and dotted with black seeds. My mom would cut off one of the short ends, and as soon as I could hold a spoon, I would excavate into the fruit’s belly, preferring the crisp edges to the sweeter heart, digging away at it until I was full and sticky from face to feet.
I had a babysitter named Laurie when I was 9 or 10. She taught me how to make pie crust and sugar cookies and a long-simmered ragu. But I remember that once, when Laurie offered me an orange, I pretended to not know how to peel it. Not because I didn’t, but because as a kid of immigrants who worked nonstop, who spent summers with babysitters and in front of the TV, I craved that sort of gentle paternal care. I wanted an adult’s undivided attention. Though peeling and cutting fruit is a relatively simple skill, sometimes it requires effort, attention and care. When we prepare fruit for each other, it’s a nudge of love. It’s a salve for loneliness.
A few years ago, I told Erika that I loved how she cut fruit for anyone who was around. She hadn’t noticed it was a thing she did until I mentioned it. That day, she was cutting up peaches and nectarines. She sliced into them perpendicular to their main latitudinal line. That sensual crease hugs the sharp edges of the pit, making it harder to pry open. Then she cut each half into wedges, placed one in her mouth, and pushed the bowl toward me before starting to wash the dishes.
Cutting fruit for someone is a nonchalant kind of love, the kind that gets taken for granted among family members. It’s also the kind we need to keep giving one another, especially now, when insecurity and intolerance are at all-time highs.
Erika called me last week to check in and tell me what was in season at the Santa Monica farmers market. “Berries, mostly, and tomatoes,” she said. “Soon we’ll have stone fruit.”
“Eat some of those tomatoes for me, and nectarines as soon as you have them. I miss California,” I said.
“I miss you,” she said. “I think of you whenever I cut fruit.”
“I think of you when I cut fruit, too,” I said.
“We’ll be in each other’s lives forever,” she said.
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