Summertime is locals' dining time -- prix-fixe menus, all-you-can-eat specials, two-for-one deals, half-priced bottles of wine. But aside from saving money (except for the bucks you'll have to spend on a bigger bathing suit), you couldn't be less thrilled with the culinary scene at the moment. It's just plain boring. The seasonal slowdown seems a little worse this year, thanks doubly to economic and weather forecasts.
Fortunately the time away from restaurant openings and wine tastings and gastronomic activities gives me plenty of time to ponder the all-important, philosophical questions I've stored in my subconscious for the past decade: Is Waldo still lost? Has anyone let the dogs back in? And why are South Floridians so obsessed with mangos?
I admit I used to laugh at "manatics" (mango fanatics). Even after I became the bewildered owner of eleven high-production mango trees -- hey, they came with the house -- I scoffed. I like the local lore about my home, which was originally built for the pickers of one of the six plantations that eventually came to be subdivided and known as Miami Shores Village. I could probably never tire of hearing about the Miccosukees, who used to paddle up now-filled canals next to my property, camp under the live oaks, and trade fresh venison for canoes filled with mangos. I find the name of my domicile, the Mango House, romantic and whimsical, if a bit obvious.
But still. Hours-long conversations about fiber content or lack thereof? Heated, wine-fueled debates about Glenn, Edward, or Tommy Atkins versus the other, 200-some cultivars found in Florida alone? Insomnia-inducing concerns about warm winters and fruit set and anthracnose disease? Feverish exchanges of recipes during the season? Entire books and festivals devoted to the fruit?
Was it just me, or were these things about as interesting as dinner-table conversations about home décor?
Then there's the work that goes along with owning mango trees. They require little maintenance until harvest, when fruit falls like rain and smells like sour landfills if you don't pick it up quickly enough. Those you are obligated to throw out, even half-eaten and covered in fruit flies, collectively become so heavy that you can't put more than ten or so in a sack. My first season with the mangos, I would race the garbage trucks coming down the street, bribing the men with all the fresh fruit they could eat if they would only help me carry the pounds of dessicated fruit to the curb. That year I actually ran out of Publix plastic bags in between visits to the grocery store.
And then it happened. Somewhere between teasing a friend about his overwhelming (and prescient, as it turned out) worry that this mango season would be a bust and planting three more trees on my property -- that'd be a Beverly, Carrie, and Nam Doc Mai, for the interest of fellow manatics -- I joined the club.
Technically the club is probably more of a culinary cult whose god is a fruit that A Guide to Mangos in Florida editor and Fairchild Tropical Garden curator Dr. Richard J. Campbell calls "an integral part of everyday life, serving not only as a valuable food source but as a common thread, binding together the culture, lifestyle, and religion of the people." It's probably appropriate, then, that South Florida devotees gather annually at Fairchild to worship during the two-day International Mango Festival. Even more so since, until the last two decades, all mangos sold in the United States were Florida offspring. (Today Caribbean and Latin American countries produce three-quarters of the retail mangos here.)
Of course, thanks to a poor harvest, there were plenty of apprehensions about the festival. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the event was held during what in the past has typically been the height of mango season: the middle of July. Manatics looked forward to gathering and diagnosing the garden's innumerable varieties; buying fruit-related artwork, gadgets, and young trees; and downing countless mango concoctions such as mango-braised brisket with mango slaw -- if there were any mangos, that is.
Without the usual cold spells, the trees had passed an unhappy winter. They were late to blossom, and when they did suddenly bloom, unpredictable spring gales blew away those early predictors of progeny. What fruit did develop fell to the ground premature, mangled by pissed-off raccoons and pecked into preripe oblivion by irate blue jays. Many tree owners didn't harvest a single mango this year. I seemed the luckiest in my region -- at the height of season, a full month earlier than normal, I was collecting about twenty decent mangos a day. My neighbors were grateful.
Yet compare that to last summer. Then, by the middle of June, I was spending three hours a day picking good fruit. I voluntarily delivered cases daily to chefs like Norman Van Aken and Michael Schwartz and charities like Food For Life Network. I traded them for goods and services ranging from getting my toilet fixed to boxfuls of lychees (also, by the way, enduring an awful year). I practically invested in the companies that produce the necessary tools of the trade: mango pickers, blenders, dehydrators, and freezers. In fact I had so much fruit that if a single Caribbean parrot had jack-hammered just one wormy little hole in a workaday Haden, it went into the compost pile.
This year, by necessity, I was merciless in a different way -- I put my cats and kids on squirrel patrol, thus saving at least a dozen rosy specimens from gnawed extinction. For the layperson, that's about four cups of mango salsa I didn't have to buy. And I'm just a hobbyist. Industry producers were so devastated, their distress was broadcast on the front page of the Herald, displacing the relatively unimportant news about terrorism and suicide bombings and such.
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Fortunately the experts at Fairchild had predicted correctly and wisely about the forthcoming season, and they managed to save enough fruit to make the festival a froth of smoothies. They also grafted 1700 trees over the previous winter, 700 more than last year, focusing on the most popular varieties like the ice cream mango. Author of The Great Mango Book, Chef Allen Susser says that in 2001, "The trees went on sale at 9:30 a.m. and were sold out by 9:40." This year, by midday, the ice cream cultivar was still available, though the Mallika -- a hybrid from two Indian mangos that has the capability of being the first space-saving dwarf mango in Florida -- was the first to sell out hours before. Next year I set my alarm.
But no one seemed to harbor doubts about the success of the festival itself. Ten-year volunteers like Chris Kilroy, manning the tree-sales tables, noted that attendance seemed right on line with previous years. Just to look at the newbie trees, folks had to wait for ten minutes in line.
Nor did the weather, so abruptly and unbearably humid after these past weeks of rain that Chef Allen had to joke about the likelihood of wearing rubber boots to the grounds, deter the devoted followers of mango rule. Photographer Mark Diamond, exhibiting his comprehensive mango poster that features more than 100 cultivars, enjoyed such brisk sales he thinks his work is going up in country kitchens ranging from Texas to Scotland. Indeed his determination to collect and photograph the largest number of varietals ever pretty much sums up the credo of all manatics, in good seasons or bad, whether we have been born or made: "I did it as a labor of love."
But then he's preaching to the converted.