On the road…again!

Afghanistan to Zambia

Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

 

By Dick Pellek

 

Let’s Go Shake The Mango Tree

 

Mango cubes in his breakfast cereal were more tastebud satisfying and aromatically pleasing than sliced bananas ever were. It took decades of taste testing, mixing of ingredients, and sample bowls of granola to settle on what he liked best. The many gastronomical adventures into the world of tropical fruits finally led to clear choices about what he thought made for a breakfast cereal that he would never tire of.  Diced mango and chopped nuts in a bowl of granola was it.

Not all mangos are created equally, to paraphrase a well-known expression; just as not all apples are interchangeable for every purpose, or for every recipe. There are over a thousand known varieties of mangos in the world, and certainly some of them are barely edible as fresh fruit.  Given that only a half dozen mango varieties are regularly marketed in North America, it says something about the producers’ perceptions regarding what might be marketable. Consequently, most of us may never know the true range of mango tastes. Our role as consumers is merely to respond to what is available in supermarkets.  Some of the mango varieties are fair, but a couple of them are decidedly better.

To an extent limited by what he has personally seen in supermarkets, the Footloose Forester is mildly encouraged by the growing popularity of mangos in the fresh produce sections of chain stores large enough to have cosmopolitan clienteles with recherché tastes. His interest in searching out what is available is entirely a selfish one. While he relishes mangos in his cereal bowl; in his jaundiced view, not all supermarket mangos rank in the same class regarding taste and texture.

Among the few varieties of mangos that are sold in most chain stores, the Ataulfo variety is his favorite.  Its tangy taste when its outer skin is just turning yellow is acceptable, but the full bodied aroma of the Ataulfo develops as the skin becomes uniformly yellow. As the mango ages at room temperature, the skin begins to mottle and to wrinkle but the taste remains pleasant. The internal moisture seems to increase from the green-yellow phase so that the full aroma of the Ataulfo presents itself and the juice by itself develops into a most fragrant bouquet.

Other varieties one finds in the supermarkets are the Tommy Atkins, the Keitt, the Kent and occasionally the Hayden.  Except for the Hayden, the others are a bit too stringy to make them all-around candidates for consumer satisfaction; at least in the opinion of this discriminating consumer. Some Asian food markets also sell fresh mangos in season; and one can expect to find varieties imported from India and Pakistan, which produce over 60% of all the mangos grown in the tropics and sub-tropics.  Once again, they don’t stack up to the Ataulfo in taste and the absence of stringiness. At one time, and before the earthquake in Haiti disrupted the market conditions for Haitian fruit, the Francis variety from Haiti could be seen in some marketplaces.  At more than two dollars per mango, however, it may have been the high price, even before market disruption, that depressed sales of Francis mangos. With all due respect to the taste buds and preferences of others, however, the Footloose Forester always considered the Francis as a third-rate mango, not because of its taste but because of its stringiness. A few other varieties might even be considered superior in taste to the Ataulfo but are not grown in sufficient quantity to become market staples.

A buyer might select a mango based on its outer appearance, but he/she only learns about stringiness by cutting into it.  That is why the Tommy Atkins, the Keitt, and the Kent do not rate higher in the estimation of the Footloose Forester.  All of them tend to have an intermediate level of stringiness. Finally, the Hayden is a very fine mango as regards taste and the absence of stringiness. It is puzzling, however, why more Hayden mangos are not found in supermarkets.

People living in Hawaii, however; and in other tropical and sub-tropical locales, can enjoy Hayden and other varieties of mangos almost any time of year; and about 90% of all the mangos grown in Hawaii are of the Hayden variety. The Hake and Chinese mango varieties are also very good. The latter is a large, irregularly shaped fruit that belies its excellent taste and texture. But for a Footloose Forester homesick for the Hawaiian Islands, nothing in the world comes close to the divine taste of the Pieri mango. Its distinctive shape is so unlike anything else, that the Footloose Forester could spot the hanging fruit from about 100 yards away. So passionate is he (present tense) about the Pieri that the Footloose Forester wrote about it in his book of memoirs.

One Pieri tree on the campus of the University of Hawaii was so prolific that it provided lunch for the Footloose Forester for 13 months in a row. Never mind the accepted wisdom that mango season in Hawaii runs from May through September. His special Pieri yielded at least a few fruits every month for more than a year.  From a plant physiology standpoint, the phenomenon known as flushing allows a single tree to produce leaves, flowers, and fruits on different branches at different times.  Thus it extends the season when fruit becomes ripe.

 

 

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Mango Varieties From Nicaragua

 

As a conclusion to this reverie about mangos, one more variety of mango must be mentioned. It is the Itamaraca. With a decidedly small and inconspicuous fruit, it was not found in grocery stores or even in farmers’ market because only a few trees existed anywhere in Hawaii. What made it special was not only the supreme quality of its flesh; or the ease with which its skin could be peeled back with a fingernail; or the rich pungent odor of its juice; or the fact that its statuesque form as a tree was unique among all the mango trees. No, the Itamaraca was special because it signaled the arrival of spring in Hawaii. When the Itamaraca started to bear fruit, you knew that other mango varieties would not be far behind.    

The stately Itamaraca we visited each spring was so accommodating that it was not necessary to climb it to harvest its fruits. We would shake the tree and watch as they fell to the ground in such numbers that all one had to do was gather them up, then immediately snack on mango flesh by peeling back the skin with a fingernail. No other mango known to the Footloose Forester has such a characteristic that allows you to peel its skin like a banana.

The specific mango tree which we remember isn't there anymore. It once grew on the grounds of the University of Hawaii campus at Manoa, not far away from his favorite Pieri, but was eventually uprooted and removed to make way for a new classroom building. The Itamaraca variety of mango was so small, in fact, that the Hawaiians and others who regularly passed by the tree on their way to classes usually overlooked its modest fruits. But Thu and her mango loving husband relished its wonderful bouquet of pungent flavor and the ease with which we could enjoy snacking on its fruit.

People outside of the tropics might assume that there is a 12-months-a-year growing season in Hawaii, which there is, but there is not a year-round fruiting season. The normal mango season in Hawaii runs from about May to September, but the Itamaraca that we were so fond of always set fruit as early as March. The Itamaraca was a true harbinger of the onset of spring.

Since this chronicle entry is truly a memoir about mangos in general; and the Itamaraca in particular, it should end with the thought that inspired this memoir in the first place, four decades ago.

As we lay in bed on Sundays mornings contemplating how we would spend the day together, Footloose Forester was inwardly overjoyed whenever Thu suggested, "Let's go shake the mango tree." To him, it meant many, many things; both at the time and in the decades of honeymoon that were to follow. Shaking the mango tree meant climbing the tree and inducing the ripe mangos to fall to the ground. It meant that his athletic wife was going to scamper up into the wide, accommodating branches of that Itamaraca tree. His bride, ever young in spirit and in mind was telling him that she enjoyed, again and again, the simple pleasures of time together in pursuit of things that bound us close; the thoughts of how we were as close as we could come to communing with nature; and a statement that we both enjoyed the bounty of nature and could enjoy the perfumed milieu of all manner of flowering trees around us. Although we lived in an apartment without the prospects of having flowers and fruit trees of our own, in Hawaii you can enjoy most wild fruits even though you don't own land. You can see them, you can smell them and you can savor them, almost anywhere.

The ever-ready editing feature in the LegacyStories.org website allows the addition of a photo that was taken some 5 years after this chronicle was first written.  The photo was taken in Viet Nam and the mango shown below was eaten only a few minutes later.

 

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mango variety from Australia

"Let's go shake the mango tree" were words that the Footloose Forester heard, week after week, during the early springtime of those short years in Hawaii, thus Let’s Go Shake The Mango Tree was the working title of his first draft of personal memoirs. In retrospect, those years in Hawaii were the happiest years of our lives. And the Itamaraca mango tree was the symbol of that happiness.