Food in fiction has been the favourite part for readers. Who can forget the dreams of feasting with Elves, second breakfasting with hobbits, or joining the Famous Five on a picnic with ginger beer, gloriously ripe plums and slabs of fruitcake? While these stories speak to an older generation raised in leaner times, we still have cookbooks that are associated with fictional worlds.
Books tend to show their age in terms of food. Elizabeth Bennett dining on hothouse grapes, Narnia and genteel tea and crumpets with Tumnus. Today a post apocalypse character may feel lucky to find a stale protein bar. But over time food itself has changed, and this includes fruit.
We are lucky today in most parts of the world that fresh, palatable fruit is fairly easy to obtain. But that fresh apple plucked from the tree, with all its juicy crunchiness is itself the product of many years work in selection and cultivation.
The apple originated in central Asia, and people have been cultivating it for thousands of years. Indeed, the word apple was a generic term for fruit of all kinds. As with many plants, the apple can be grafted to produce a clone tree, and the size controlled by a dwarf rootstock. So here you have a knowledgeable and skilled workforce, which is a cultural feature in itself. You can’t cultivate a great deal if wars raze the area continuously and people are focused on survival.
But the apple also has seeds, and this is where it proves it’s worth. The seeds do not all run true to type – they produce different types. So an apple picked in China can be transported to foreign lands, and grow something else – a soft dessert fruit, a hard cider apple or one that keeps well. In this way apple varieties are local to regions and may only be found in a small spot. The apple has spread across the world, changing as it travels.
So in terms of books, a time may not have had apples, or they may have looked very different. Many fruits are similar – watermelons were once yellow, plums were brough to the UK by the Romans for instance. So historical fiction writers need to do their research – and that can be quite difficult. The trap of thinking just because it is available today, it has always been the same is an easy one to fall into. Archaeological research can tell a lot from pollen samples, middens, floor debris, grave foods, written records and ancient toilets. A fruit may also be so expensive and rare that it is only seen by the rich – the pineapple was a decorative status symbol, and rented out for parties in Victorian times.
Fantasy novels get the chance to invent a new fruit, or research uses for obscure ones. Fruit that has gone out of fashion (sloes, medlars) or is a forgotten wild fruit (blackberries) can be interesting. Culpeper’s herbal mentions many medicinal uses for fruits. They may also be used differently – dried and eaten with meat and fat in pemmican as a travel food.
Science fiction gets the chance to pursue the evolution of fruits. Will a fruit have genes inserted for medicine production? Or can they travel across the stars with us, like they did along the Silk Road? Would colonists be doing the same grafting and seed saving that gardeners have been doing for thousands of years? Would a humble piece of fruit tempt an alien? In Midworld by Alan Dean Foster, consumption of the home tree fruit produces a chemical in the saliva. So when they spit into a guard flower, the defence thorns retract. The fabulous Plant thing in SE Sasaki’s series Amazing Grace is sentient and can produce fruit to aid a starving space station and gain their trust. There is a lot of research that looks at how plants react to their environment, so perhaps sentience is not quite the stretch it seems.
So fruit, like many things, just because it is common today doesn’t mean it was so in the past. Or maybe it was and has fallen out of fashion because it squishes being transported. Will a space traveler long for the crunch of an apple from their childhood, or will they be satisfied with strange new tastes?
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