Love Letter to Papaya

On the heels of the New Year, it’s hard not to think about the rituals that we use to mark time, to shake free and declare ourselves ready to start afresh. For many people in Ghana, it’s de rigeur ritual to attend a ‘crossover’ church service, with megachurches and tiny neighborhood churches alike vying for congregants to bear witness to the turning of the year.

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There’s something beautiful in that, but all-night church services are decidedly not my thing. I’m not one for resolutions, either—too often they’re a measure of disappointment—but there is a ritual I rather like: that of eating a new fruit during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (well, one of four Jewish new years, but let’s not nitpick). Like most rituals involving food and symbolism, I’m a fan, but it’s always seemed a little curious to me—surely there is a limit to how many ‘new’ fruits one can experience, no? I mean once you’ve gone through the usual suspects in the fruit department, and worked your way through the passionfruit and starfruit and dragonfruit and cheremoya, what’s left? Surely the ancient rabbis didn’t expect people to go on far-flung expeditions every year to seek out hitherto unknown varieties of fruit. Is it just meant to be a ‘new’ fruit in the sense of being available early in the season? ‘New’ as in you haven’t eaten it yet in that particular year?

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I have another take on this, of late. The insight comes out of this: I’m currently in the midst of a love affair with papaya, a fruit I used to hate.

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A few months ago, this would have been unthinkable. I’ve always found papaya, especially very ripe papaya, to taste a little…well, vomit-y.  The texture, the color, the aftertaste—the resemblance was just more than I could tolerate. For a person who has long considered herself a goat in the edibles department—meaning that I’ll try anything, with gusto—admitting my dislike for any food does not come easy. But for years, it’s been my cilantro: while other wax orgiastic about its aroma and flavor, I avoid papaya like the plague.

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I was staying with my fairy godmother while I convalesced from a wee medical incident a while back, and Fairy Godmother really, really likes papaya. She left a large slice of some cut up for me for breakfast one morning, and when she returned at the end of the day to find it untouched, I had to politely explain my dislike. ‘Oh!’ She exclaimed. ‘That’s because you’ve been eating it wrong!’ I was a bit miffed, but didn’t have a chance to let it show—Fairy Godmother was off and away in story mode.

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She spent a good deal of her childhood living in and traveling through Mexico, and then returned to Mexico City as an adult in her second career in the Foreign Service. And in Mexico, she told me, you eat papaya with a hearty squeeze of lime and a dash of salt. I was intrigued, but I didn’t get to try it that night. Instead, I reveled in the memories of Mexico that all the talk of papayas had lured to the surface for Fairy Godmother—her sister’s flightless parrot that suddenly took wing one day from the window of the former hospital where they lived, and had to be coaxed down from the tree by a dozen men on ladders, like something out of Garcia Marquez; the little girl whose acquaintance she made as a child at a resort in Acapulco, and tracked down in Mexico City decades later; the time she took her daughter and a friend to a reserve to see the butterflies, leaving their car stuck on a boulder on the mountain road and hitching a ride with some campesinos in a pickup instead.

The next morning when I woke late and emerged to the kitchen, there was my slice of papaya, seeds scooped, with a wedge of lime tucked next to it. Cautiously, I went about it: squeeze of lime, dash of salt, scoop of the flesh with a tiny spoon.

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I was astonished. It was delicious. Sweet, tart, the fullness of the papaya aroma tempered, enlivened, by the other flavors mingling on the spoon. In an instant, I was a convert. It was, dare I say, a new fruit.

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Now everything about eating a papaya feels delightful. That shock of pink from its green rind; the pearlescent black seeds clustering inside like caviar; the translucent veining of the fruit with every scooped spoonful; the warm pink hollow, like a womb, that remains after eating.

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Next Rosh Hashanah–or any moment in new of marking as ‘new’? Old fruit, new way of eating it. Fieldwork is supposed to shake up your preconceptions, right? Done. (Ha! Hardly what Malinowski, father of ethnographic fieldwork, had in mind…) For now, I’m trying to hold the lesson in mind as the new calendrical year unfolds: even the distasteful and unpleasant can be transmuted if you stumble upon the right alchemy.

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