Giving Thanks For Sugar Apples

Comfort food took on a whole new meaning for me this month. I started waking up in the morning with dread in my belly and Dylan songs running through my mind. “Ain't no use jiving.  Ain't no use joking…. Everything is broken.” Great he won the Nobel Prize. Bad news that he was right, the world’s gone wrong.

How to start the day when you can’t bear to listen to the radio, or read the paper or scroll through your Facebook feed? Better to go outside and see what the birds are squawking about.

What a difference in the yard this season. Last year the drought took out the coconut and mango trees we had planted, and starving deer ate everything else they could reach. The sugar apple tree survived but many of the fruits turned hard and black, mummified by fungus.

Now it is dripping like a rain forest out there and the native trees are full of activity. Gray king birds and Zenaida doves are picking the seeds out of the white caper pods, and scaly-naped pigeons have harvested most of the black mampoo fruits and pigeon berries.

So I have sought solace in the garden with the birds and the trees. Though vulnerable, as we all are, to coming storms, they are undisturbed by the news.

The sugar apple tree has been loaded with heavy ripening fruit, and one night when the wind got going in the night we woke up to find some of them dropped on the lawn like exploded custard grenades.

There is a delicate art to harvesting sugar apples. You want to pick them before the pearly-eyed thrashers can get to them and hollow them out. But if you pick them while they are too hard they may sit inside on the counter in safety but not ripen properly, or at all. You need to leave them on the tree until their sections start to separate, showing spaces in between that look yellowish pink, and they feel just slightly soft to the touch. That can take weeks. But slightly soft can turn squishy in just a few hours, and then they let go and fall to the ground in a mess.

We found that the best approach was to give each sugar apple a gentle squeeze every morning. My husband brought out the ladder and stationed it next to the tree so we could easily reach up into the branches and feel each fruit. If any were getting soft, we tried to remember to check them again at dinner time.

Checking the sugar apples turned out to be both calming and engagingly competitive. It is difficult to outsmart a thrasher, though this year they have been a bit less aggressive. Maybe because there are also lots of other fruits and berries around.   

When we planted the tree about 8 years ago, it was a gift from my son and his girlfriend. I had never eaten a sugar apple. It is a tropical tree, native to the West Indies, and the fruits don’t travel well (as you can imagine from my harvesting challenges), so people from the north often aren’t familiar with them.

Even if you found one in the market in New York, you probably couldn’t properly appreciate it. In his last book, Wild Fruit, Thoreau discussed the special pleasures of native fruits: “It is a grand fact that you cannot make the fairer fruits or parts of fruits matters of commerce; that is, you cannot buy the highest use and enjoyment of them. You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it.

This year there were more sugar apples than ever, and too many got ripe all at once. Instead of hoarding them as special treasures, I have given them away, frozen a few, taken them to pot lucks – and still greedily eaten as many of them as I could.

I usually break open the ripe sugar apple, delicately pull out a juicy section and put it in my mouth, carefully extracting the seed and saving it in a saucer. After the rainy night when the ripe ones fell and smashed, I went out and collected all the fruit that had gotten suddenly soft. There were sugar apples all over the counter. I broke open one of the softest ones and held the whole thing up to my mouth in a wonderful mess of drippy, joyful sweetness.