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  • Food in the 'Hood

    Gift of the Gods: The Pear – Part II

    Part I portrayed the pear as a noble fruit, cherished by the upper orders of western society.

    For all their passion for the fruit, Europe’s upper strata still lacked a truly succulent pear. By the middle of the 19th century, cultivators in France and Belgium were breeding beurre (buttery) pears that gradually supplanted the typical dry, solid-fleshed varieties. The groundbreaker was a Belgian priest, Nicholas Hardenpoint, who was determined to develop a superior pear. His followers, apothecaries, attorneys, businessmen, and other amateur gardeners, were swept up in a frenzy that historian U.P. Hedrick compared to Holland’s tulip craze.

    The most influential of the horticulturists, Jean-Baptiste Van Mons, a Hardenpoint disciple, led the way in producing luscious pears with “melting” tastes. A gentleman of wide-ranging interests, he had worked at various times as a pharmacist, physician, and physicist and had been engaged in liberal politics. Van Mons searched out wild or roadside trees, selecting those that promised the juiciest offspring. He plucked seeds from tough and woody fruit growing on the thorny trees. He seeded and reseeded in an unrelenting push to grow new varieties. “To sow, to re-sow, to sow again, to sow perpetually, in short to do nothing but sow, is the practice to be pursued,” he insisted.

    Rearing many in the hospitable soil of the old Belgian convent in Louvain, Van Mons developed more than 400 varieties between the 1780s and 1830. Among them were the renowned Beurre Bosc and the Beurre D’Anjou. His single-minded focus on the pear tree as first and foremost a fruit creator paid off. “In the right garden environment ordinary pears would turn their energy from the vulgar growth of wood and leaves to the higher goal of fruit production,” historian Philip Pauly summed up the Van Mons method.

    Esteemed by the well-to-do, the noble pear was also embraced by Europe’s philosophes and men of letters. In Diderot’s Encyclopedie, the 18th century naturalist Louis Daubenton writes that “the pear is the most . . . commonly cultured fruit tree in the fruit and kitchen gardens of the wealthy, while apples abound in the orchards of common people.” Apples, he added, “keep longer and may be eaten before they are ripe, whereas pears are edible only when they are more or less ripe. But good pears, by their variety, different ripening seasons, and the rich and refined flavor of the majority, are infinitely superior to the finest apples.”

    America had its own version of the aristocratic pear culture. Since the U.S. lacked a native pear tradition (most of our fruit have descended from European varieties), American agriculturists looked to Europe for models. Gentlemen farmers wanted to emulate the Belgian horticulturists who raised pears that have been compared to “wine skins filled with juice.” The early American pears, in contrast, were hard and bitter. They were suitable only for cooking or hard cider.

    Apples, on the other hand, did not appeal to the well-bred growers. While apples grew rapidly and almost effortlessly, pears took longer to fruit and required close attention. The perishable pear, which had to be picked before it was ripe, could easily deteriorate without vigilant supervision. If it was not to lose its exquisitely delicate flavor, the pear must be served quickly. Unlike pears, apples, with their “honest, ruddy faces,” as one 19th century horticulturist described them, were an everyman’s fruit.

    In the Northeast during the early 19th century, a feverish craze, a sort of pear mania, gripped the upper classes. Merchants or lawyers by day, they aimed to grow the most fashionable pears on their suburban farms. European gardeners helped out by sending over pear cuttings. Van Mons contributed several hundreds from his collection.

    Boston was the center of this mania. Pear devotees flocked to tasting parties. “They savored the fruit in the library as an occasion for male bonding and connoisseurship, much as they played golf and smoked cigars together in later periods,” fruit expert David Karp wrote. The aspiring farmers formed the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, where the amateurs socialized and exchanged gossip on farming techniques and the latest varieties of fruit.

    The society staged an annual exhibition at which farmers displayed their most prized pears. In 1852, the event boasted 310 varieties. The exhibitors competed for accolades and curious visitors stared in puzzlement at the novelties. Horticulturist Andrew Downing observed the spectacle: “Every year the tables at the HORTICULTURAL HALL groan under vast contributions of pears; but the thousands of uninitiated visitors are, besides what may be gained by feasting the eyes, not much the wiser.”

    Awards went to the most aesthetically pleasing fruit. “Size and color counted far less in awarding prizes than quality,” historian Hedrick observed. “The ‘commercial pack’ cut no figure.”

    The obsession with pears was contagious. It spread from the gentry to smaller growers. “It is the ambition of every fruit-grower in the circle of ten miles about Boston, to possess all the newest pears,” horticulturist Downing commented. “Every little cottage has its Bartlett, and its Beurres; and many amateurs annually import from France, Belgium and England, the last novelty of the nurseryman’s catalogues, at prices where guineas count as freely as shillings.

    Horticultural pursuits were also morally satisfying. Fruit culture, the gentlemen farmers felt, demonstrated their ability to rise about grubby, material concerns. “He who cultivates a garden, and brings to perfection flowers and fruits, cultivates and advances his own nature,” Ezra Weston, one of their leaders, declared in a speech in 1837 to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Growing pears, historian Tamara Thornton suggests, was an apt vocation for the New England elite. “They felt they had something in common with their pears. Both were the choice product of cultivation.”

    Not everyone joined in the pear adulation. One commentator dissented: “They [pears] are a more aristocratic fruit,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. “How much more attention they get from the proprietor! The hired man gathers the apples and barrels them. The proprietor plucks the pears at odd hours for a pastime, and his daughter wraps them each in its paper. . . . They are named after emperors and kings and queens and dukes and duchesses. I fear I shall have to wait till we get to pears with American names, which a republican can swallow.”

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    Pear Purveyors

    Dupont Circle Farm Market (Sunday mornings to 1 pm on 20th St. bet. Mass. Ave. & Q St., NW) : Stop by Emily Zaas’ stand at the market for her pear cider. There is a long tradition of perry, or pear cider, in England. Black Rock also sells splendid apple cider.

    Yes! (1825 Col. Rd.; tel., 462-5150. The organic foods store carries a couple of brands of pear juice and Crisps, a package of dried Asian pears.

     

    Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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