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HEARTS OF THE CITY | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

The Supper Tree

May 29, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

Casey, my 5-year-old son, cruises in the back door. He looks hungry. Outside, the sun is starting to set.

"What do you want for supper?" I ask.

"Loquats," he says.

"OK," I say.

We walk out the door, down some stone steps to a terrace. Just below is where the loquat tree grows, and the terrace acts as a kind of ladder. We stand on it and begin our ritual. Pick a loquat, eat it. Then ptooey, spit the seeds into the brush. Pick another loquat, and so on.

For 20 minutes it goes on. As quiet as foraging cows, we pick and chew, pick and chew. For the month or so that the fruit stays ripe on the tree, we will remain addicted. In our minds, no taste can compete with a pale yellow loquat pulled from its branch and popped into the mouth.

I go back to the house, get some jack cheese and bread, and lay it down on the grass between us. Casey nods, still chewing. Once, we tried taking the loquats to the table, rather than vice versa, but it didn't work. The loquats seemed to lose a small measure of their winey perfection, almost like a trout taken home from the stream where it's caught. So now we go to the tree.

Loquats once grew everywhere in Southern California. In backyards, in orchards, in parks. They were brought here from the Mediterranean, where they were known as nespole in Italy and nisperos in Spain. The original transplantation probably happened sometime in the 1920s. Through the 1940s loquats remained wildly popular during their short season and many growers raised them commercially. They served as evidence of Southern California's specialness. You cannot grow loquats in Illinois or North Carolina, but you can here.

Alex Nemeth, a grower in Encinitas, remembers his office filing cabinet bulging with letters from local customers who wanted to arrange their purchases in advance. Many would want two or three bushels for jellies, jams and for plain eating.

Sweet, an old-timer, says the popularity was entirely justified. Nothing matches the light sweetness of a loquat in season, he says. You eat them and feel refreshed rather than filled up.

Casey agrees. One afternoon I warned him he was going to get sick if he kept wolfing them down.

"Nope," he said. And he was right.

Now he leans back in the grass of the terrace, sated and reflective. "I wish," he said, "we could have loquats every day like this day." He means every day of the year. I do, too, but we both know that the season soon will pass and we will have to wait another year for a loquat fix.

*

In our 1990s neighborhood, we find ourselves alone in our loquat love. We have spotted three other trees growing within two blocks of our house. The fruit from these trees uniformly falls to the ground, uneaten and ignored by their owners. We know their exact location and how easily we can grab loquats from each of them without seeming to trespass.

Casey has even named them. There's the "High-Up Tree" on a steep hillside and the "Sidewalk Tree" and the "Driveway Tree." The "Sidewalk Tree" produces fruit slightly more syrupy than ours, a grave fault, but its season lasts a couple of weeks longer. We go there to poach when ours has given up the ghost.

No one cares about the poaching because no one cares about the loquats. As far as anyone can tell, loquats fell from favor sometime in the late 1940s. Refrigerated trucks and railroads suddenly allowed California growers to raise crops for a national market, increasing their profit margins. To fit into this new world, a fruit had to travel well. And loquats did not.

Loquats, in fact, travel as badly as any fruit known to man. A ripe loquat will bruise merely from the picking and begin to look rotten within minutes. A gust of wind can blow leaves against the fruit and bruise them. Not for nothing did Casey and I decide that loquats could not even travel to the dinner table. So delicate is the loquat that in Japan, where it is adored, modern growers often wrap each fruit in a protective gauze.

Here, the growers abandoned it, investing in fruits like apricots and avocados that could make the trip to Philadelphia and Boston. The loquat virtually disappeared from the marketplace. And since the supermarket defines what is edible for most of us, the loquat disappeared from people's minds. It still grew in their backyards, they simply stopped seeing it.

The unfortunate name "loquat" came to be associated with something vaguely undesirable. Or else confused with the kumquat, which it resembles in no way at all. In most people's minds, it now hardly exists.

*

When I first bought our house 10 years ago, I didn't see my loquat tree any more than others in the neighborhood. Season after season it blossomed and produced its fruit in complete isolation.

Then the terrace got built and one day a friend walked across it in early May. "Yum," she said, and jerked a fruit from the tree.

That's when I learned. Eventually I taught Casey, and these days we spend each May in loquat heaven. We have our loquat suppers, eating on the grass until we acquire that dreamy, unfocused look that comes from the perfect meal.

Soon, of course, it will be gone. May has begun to fade. Looking for consolation, Casey says that's OK, we still have the "Sidewalk Tree."

And we do, for a while.

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