The Perfect Fruit by Chip Brantley

Book Review 2009

Last year Chip Brantley told me was writing a book about pluots. I know Chip through Cookthink, the really wonderful food and cooking website that he founded and runs. But I was a little dubious about the pluots; how could you write a whole book about them? What was so interesting about pluots?

Well, as it turns out, pluots make a fascinating story.

What's a pluot? And what in the world is a Dinosaur Egg? Is there any real different between pluots and plums? And who grows all this fruit anyway? The answers to all of these questions are far more fascinating than I could have imagined. I highly recommend you read this book and take a trip with Chip Brantley as he wanders through California's stone fruit region, meeting the one or two big families responsible for nearly all our stone fruit, and visiting the one breeder who has created nearly all of these new varieties.

Competition, marketing, good old-fashioned American farming, and the reasons why Americans will buy $1.69/pound Red Delicious apples over $.79/pound juicy plums — these all are wrapped up in the reason why I found this the most interesting book I've read in a long time. I mean, I get a lot of books to review, but I don't usually stay up late to read them!

What makes this whole story so interesting? Well, first of all, there's Chip's engaging writing and voice. He enters the world of stone fruit wide-eyed and gushing, after tasting Flavor King, one of the best pluots on the market. It's sweet and transcendent, but not widely available, since it doesn't ship well. Chip discovers it at a Los Angeles farmers market, and he's hooked. What is this fruit? And why aren't more people eating it? He goes on a tour of the farm where these pluots (and most of the other pluots in the US) have been bred.

Breeding fruit is a longterm adventure; it's hard work, with very little payoff. It takes years and years of patient development, testing, and waiting. Chip tells the story of Floyd Zaiger and his family, who have been in the fruit breeding business for decades. It's a labor of love for Zaiger.

Growing stone fruit, on the other hand, is a near quixotic pursuit in America, where appearance, shipping qualities, and a buyers' market have dominated the types of fruit sold in supermarkets. Americans are tentative about plums; they would usually prefer a dependably mealy apple over a chancy plum. Growers have responded to this by focusing on sweetness and flavor, and very recently, an emphasis on plums' antioxidant properties.

Chip follows these growers around through the 2007 summer season, watching as they work to find exclusive varieties that they can carry and develop, and a way to sell the American public on the transcendent eating experience of truly delicious plums, apricots, and cross-breeds: pluots, plumcots, and apriums. (One of the most interesting parts of the book was the discussion of the name: pluot just isn't cutting it — besides, it's trademarked by Zaiger — and growers are pulling their hair out over how to market these little fruits.)

Ultimately, I loved this story for Chip's total engagement with it and his love affair with this fruit, but also the sharp look at an American industry. Any story that can so completely pull back the anonymity of a food industry is fascinating, I think, and also very necessary.

It's so easy in the food world to throw around blanket condemnations of "big agriculture" and "big farms" and "mass food production." But as this book shows, even these "big farms" have their own American story, with drama and human perspective. These fruit growers aren't rich; they aren't owned by Monsanto or Shell Oil. They are growing fruit because it's what their families have done for years, and because they love the thrill of a freshly-picked plum. America is an enormous country, and while yes, these farms are shipping fruit all over the nation, there aren't many other farms who are willing to even get in the business of stone fruit. These are America's stone fruit growers, and it is truly fascinating to read their stories.

Chip tells their stories so well, and so vividly, that you'll remember the names of these growers next time you browse the shelves of your produce section. Kingsburg Orchards? Oh yes, they have that Black Velvet apricot that nearly started this whole race for the perfect breed of fruit. Dinosaur Eggs? That's the (brilliantly!) trademarked name of the Dapple Dandy pluot.

And yes, next time I go to the produce market, I can hardly wait to buy a basket of ripe, juicy pluots, hoping for a truly transcendent variety from Floyd Zaiger and this small band of growers.

• Read it! The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot, $16.50 at Amazon

• Visit Chip at Cookthink

Related: Seasonal Spotlight: Pluots

(Images: Bloomsbury USA; Flickr member clayirving licensed for use under Creative Commons; Faith Durand; Kathryn Hill)