By Erica Wides
Here in Brooklyn it's finally the end of summertime. There's a little chill in our rarified atmosphere, and the heirloom gingko trees that line our quaint streets are beginning to drop their puke-scented fruits all around... that's the telltale sign that autumn is upon us, the fresh smell of barf-nuts in the cool morning air. Yeah, it's over.
Ah, summer. You're through. And I'll miss you. Along with your $2 boxes of blueberries from the corner fruit cart, or $12 melons from the Farmer's Market, or $22 organic watermelons from Foragers in Chelsea. Yes, the non-organic blueberries are probably covered in toxic pesticides, sure it took 45 sweaty minutes on the Q train to get to the Farmer's Market, and yeah, you could have bought a little bag of weed and fruit from the cart with that $22 and had some real fun (and not care about the pesticides).
Because for me, summer is totally about fruit, really good fruit. I love my autumn apples and pears, mind you, but the whole point of suffering through a New York City summer is that the fruit can be unbelievably delicious. Otherwise it's misery city. And, when the fruit is right, it can bring back powerful memories...of the first plum you tried out of a bowl on your neighbor's deck in Alabama that made you salivate for more; the first time you ever gorged on strawberries when you discovered them growing in a field near your house on Long Island; and, if you're above a certain age, the first time your eyes rolled up in your head when your grandmother handed you a fresh, seasonal peach from her tree ...right before your parents put her away in a nursing home.
And we're not talking life in a cabin on Little House on the Prairie -- even growing up in a split level in the '70s would most likely have exposed you to a first-time fruit experience, one so powerful that it never left you. That's what we educated elites call a Proustian moment -- I know that because I read it on Wikipedia.
But how many of our children this summer had Proustian fruit moments with fat-free fruity Go-Gurt? Or grape-flavored Gummy vitamins, or strawberry-colored Swedish Fish, or muffins freshly baked with synthetic blue-flavor dots,or oat-bran protein "froot" bars, or lite-Snozberry-Sprite-flavored Slurpees from the third 7-Eleven that just opened up around the corner? And, no, Crunchberries don't count.
No children are, because you can't have a Proustian fruit moment with a pouch of Squeezy-Fruit.
You can have a Proustian moment with food, ie. anything that walked, swam, flew or, in the case of fruit, grew out of the ground (apples, strawberries, raspberries), but you can't have one with what I call foodiness, which is anything that is packaged and flavored like food, but came out of a factory (apple-pie-flavored toaster strudels, blue raspberry flavored sports drinks, "red berries" enhanced diet cereal flakes).
So why do so many of us prefer peach flavored Snapple to a peach, and why do so many mommies feed their little Lexi and Hampton strawberry-flavored kid foodiness puree in a bag instead of strawberries?
Because, unlike fruit, you know exactly what you're going to get from foodiness "fruit" products every time; they don't go bad; they're enhanced with vitamins and protein and electrolytes; they're fat-free; they don't have dangerous amounts of sugar (or so they claim); they aren't messy, so they don't get on the seats of the SUV or make their iPad screens sticky; and, unlike actual fruit, you can find them everywhere. In other words, unlike fruit, foodiness fruit products are convenient, predictable, and safe.
That's what foodiness propaganda does: it tells us foodiness is better than food, it's safer, it's cleaner, it doesn't require a napkin or, in many cases, even hands or teeth, and, most important, there's no risk. It's safe. Or so it claims to be.
And it's not just the need for napkins or the lack of predictability that drive people away from a dripping ripe real peach and into the open arms of a sterile peach pie flavored yogurt in a tube (no spoon required!) - it's the fear of fruit that has arisen in recent years.
Recent headlines warning the public about dangerous amounts of sugar in fruit would rival headlines about the Red Menace in the 50's. The sugar in fruit is going to make us fat! And of course, fruit's role in our obesity epidemic is so obvious -- that morbidly obese Sally over there in accounting just won't put down those blueberries!
Then there's just the fear that we have developed of any food that didn't stop off at Mr. Burns's nuclear plant and / or wasn't created in lab in New Jersey.
Case in point: I have a little bungalow in a former communist colony in upstate New York. The community grounds are totally covered in wineberry vines, which are kind of like a wild raspberry. For a few sweet weeks in July, the wineberries are ripe and just so delicious. (They're also free, which for a Jew like me is another perk.) While my husband and I pick them and shove them in our mouths by the handful, most of my neighbors aren't even aware that they're edible. They'll drive their cars to the local supermarket and buy a pint of pesticide covered flavorless raspberries flown in from Mexico, or come in from Costco carrying a 12-pack of raspberry flavored diet iced tea, when they could be gorging on wineberries right in their own (communally owned) backyards. Many of them have asked me -- with horrified looks on their faces -- if the wineberries are actually edible.
"Really?" they ask, "You eat them right off the vine?"
"Yes," I explain. "This is how people ate for hundreds of thousands of years before Wal-Mart."
And these aren't Tea Partiers in Texas who don't trust anything that wasn't made by Monsanto - these are liberal New York Jews. ...who should know better.
Our communal fear of real, actual fruit and gravitation towards safe, sanitized, foodiness "fruit" is really just an expression of our general obsession with safety across the board. We prefer Facebook "friends" to friends; we want our phones to tell us where we are, what we want, where to go, and what to think about all of it; we want auto-tune instead of voices; we prefer reality shows to reality, Tweeting to experiences, sexting to sex, 7-Elevens to delis, and Jamba Juice 600 calorie "juices," to a drippy, luscious, perfect seasonal cantaloupe or nectarine. Not to mention all the hand sanitizers and antibacterial nonsense turning us into microbe-free targets for superbugs.
Like Michael Douglas playing Liberace or tourists descending on far west Chelsea, cherry-flavored sports drinks and watermelon-flavored gummies give us simulated fruit experiences without the risk of the real thing.
But there are also no rewards. ...and I don't mean like a million Candy Crush points or Capital One "rewards," I mean an actually rewarding experience. I would like to point out something we have all lost site of, which is that nothing great was ever achieved through safety. This is true for moon landings, mid-career leaps of faith, and melons.
And yes, it's true that if you drink a diet peach-flavored Snapple you know exactly what you're going to get, every time, and if you bite into an actual peach you won't. While a peach-flavored Snapple will always taste the same, a peach might sometimes disappoint. Like life.
But biting into a peach gives you the potential to have a Proustian peach experience you remember for life, while nobody is making indelible life memories drinking peach-flavored Snapple. As a small child, I once bit into a perfect warm, fragrant peach that I had picked on a family outing, only to have the pit split open and a four-inch worm crawl across my chubby, juicy little hand and practically wave at me. I was off peaches for a few days after that, but I bounced back. Of course if it were today I would have sued the peach and the worm, but you get the point -- taking risks makes you resilient. And the chubby hand was attached to an even chubbier body, that couldn't resist the lure of a perfect peach. (Not that the fruit was what made me chubby -- it was all the sitting around reading Little House on the Prairie books and tortured violin playing.)
Think of it this way -- it's never easier to be a risk taker or a rebel. You don't have to write a subversive book and get put into the gulag and win your Pulitzer or Nobel after they execute you; you don't have to light yourself on fire to protest an unjust war; or start a viral campaign on you-tube or get a million twitter followers (although I need more, so please follow me). All you have to do these days to be a risk taker and a rebel is eat an apple on the way to work instead of an apple-flavored breakfast-cereal bar with synthetic "milk" layers.
So before summer is officially over, before it's too late and the gingko berries dry out and lose their smell and there isn't a local peach to be found... pick real fruit over foodiness "fruit" -- eat a real strawberry instead of drinking a strawberry McDonald's juice smoothie; eat a blueberry instead of drinking a blue-Windex-flavored sports drink; grab the last plums of the season and eat them in your car, with your bare, dirty hands. While you're driving. It's much safer than texting ... and much more rewarding.
To learn more about food and foodiness, tune into Erica Wides, host of "Let's Get Real" Tuesday nights at 6:30pm on HeritageRadioNetwork.Org