Is Fruit Salad Necessary?

And why do we have such tangled feelings about fruit?

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IF I MAY: I would like to use today’s newsletter to make sweeping and probably offensively inaccurate generalizations that claim to speak for the nation but most likely speak only for me: We have always had tangled feelings about fruit.

I love fruit. We all love fruit. But it was once held in much higher regard in America.

Early settlers had to eat cranberries and beach plums and ugly misshapen apples. They scrambled around for pawpaws and chokeberries and wild grapes. And even once we were well into cultivating fruit and the railroads were fully installed and carting food everywhere, our most favored fruits continued to be seasonal delicacies and often a special treat.

Remember when Laura Ingalls got an orange in her stocking in the Little House? She was so happy. About an orange. And so grateful. In my memory, she thanked her parents by milking all the cows, chopping and stacking a cord of firewood, and putting in a new retaining wall on the lower 40. (Not really.)

Today, most parents I know would have to go into a witness protection style program if they tried to give their kid an orange as a present.

Because we live in a blasé age in which people say: Oh, I’ll just have a banana. Have we forgotten what a miracle a banana is? Some animal crawls out of the primordial ooze one day, picks up a weird cluster of tubes, wonders what would happen if they peeled and ate one of them?

Next thing you know, bananas are all the rage. (The banana “tree” is actually a rhizome that produces a berry; bananas are considered a berry.) And they continue to be one of the most important fruit crops in the world, having been domesticated in Southeast Asia and consumed by the ancient Greeks— long before people all over the planet began putting them in lunchboxes and smoothies and pudding and bread, placing them next to cash registers at coffee shops, and holding them up to their ears and making jokes about calling New York.

We take fruit for granted! But in case you’re thinking this is a hey-kids-get-off-my-yard moment, it wasn’t much better back when I was a kid. My mother used to tell the five kids in my family, “If you don’t want an apple then you most certainly are not starving.” As if finally giving in to the fact that there were no cookies in the house and you were going to have to eat an apple was on the same par as resorting to eating the weakest passenger on a Helsinki to Tokyo flight that had crashed into the icy wilderness and run out of airline food.

The mixed feelings were everywhere. She’d buy fresh fruit and then get mad at us for eating it. Who ate every single one of these seedless grapes? she’d ask, pointing at the naked branches in the bowl. (No one had eaten every single one. We had teamed up.)

We had plenty of melon in summer, but in order that we not end up in “the poor house,” we rarely had grapes or cherries and certainly no mangoes or kiwi, and she would supplement the bananas and apples none of us cared about with canned fruit.

This was usually with supper, when she felt what she’d prepared didn’t meet the requirements for a balanced meal. She’d open some fruit cocktail, apple sauce, or peaches—and we ate it. I still like canned peaches, but we definitely didn’t treat them like a luxury, the way people did during and after WWII, my most vivid knowledge of which comes from movies like the wonderful 84 Charing Cross Road, in which people spooned them into their mouths and closed their eyes as if they were eating the richest ice cream in the world.

My very non-empirical research tells me that once we started canning fruit we were on the road to losing all respect for it, and that things went downhill from there. We began eating fruit-flavored Jell-o and Skittles and drinking Tang as if they were all part of the Food Pyramid and leaving actual fruit alone, for more reasons than one person can possibly claim to know, although the great British comic Eddie Izzard does a pretty great job in this funny 2010 sketch devoted to fruit. (If cussing offends you, don’t watch it.)

The poet and cookbook author Kate Lebo also investigates our relationship to fruit, albeit in a more high-minded and complex way, in her delightful The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with Recipes).

I am quite aware that most of us today have happily taken advantage of the modern (and problematic) luxury of having fresh fruit whenever we want it.

But I still say we take fresh fruit for granted while also pretending we eat a lot more of it than we really do. You’ll often see people walking down the street eating a slice of pizza, riding the bus while eating a candy bar, or driving in their cars at 8 a.m. drinking one of those Starbucks frozen things with whipped cream and a cherry, as if it were coffee instead of a really big milkshake. But you almost never see people doing any of those things with a bunch of grapes.

All of which brings me, personally, to fruit salad.

Did you know that in the military “Fruit Salad” was once a common term for the medals and ribbons on the uniform of a highly decorated officer?

Talk about respect. Now, though, it’s a term for something that seems to come in two modes: Overkill and Why Bother.

The first category includes dishes like Waldorf Salad, which has strayed so far from the original (which was apples, celery, walnuts, and mayonnaise) that it is barely recognizable—with the marshmallows and grapes and general over-sweetness; it was at the top of a slippery slope we slid down toward those icky congealed fruit salads.

The Why Bother version, which to me is actually the most delicious version, is the simplest. Fruit does not need our help, so why bother.

In fact, if you’d asked me what to do with cherries ten years ago, before I was in the salad business, I would have said: Eat them.

But when we do give fruit help, we should do so sparingly. In fact, some of the earliest fruit salads I’ve come across in my vintage cookbook collection, in a turn-of-the-century book titled “A Book of Salads: The Art of Salad Dressing,” by Alfred Suzanne, contain little more than fruit and alcohol. (The Mandarin salad: “Put them into a basin with some castor sugar and cognac. Let them steep in this for an hour and serve in a salad bowl or fruit dish.”)

Anyone who has been reading the Department of Salad knows that I love composed fruit salads with a little onion and olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and salt, usually some mint. Perfection. Up above, you can see a couple of the ones I built last summer, when I was just starting to get the big idea of creating this newsletter. You don’t have to think about them much. There are very few fruits that are not delicious together. Just slice the fruit up and lay it out.

Here’s another. It has a few pistachios that now seem ungapatchka.

And you also know that one of my favorite ways to eat fruit in salad is with other vegetables, including in green salads. Tomatoes, peaches, plums, berries, cucumber, onion— with or without the addition of some mozzarella, feta, or blue cheese (or any cheese you like, really). Heaven. If you drizzle in the juices from the fruit, all you need is some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon or a dash of your favorite vinegar (sherry is so good).

But I’m happy to promote fruit salad in almost any form, even though, after all my disorganized thinking on the topic, I’ve become convinced that fruit salad is nothing more than a way of getting us to eat more fruit. I respect that.

None of this means that that I don’t also admire truly imaginative fruit salads.

And, of course, I will never object to the Bunny Salad from Betty Crocker’s 1957 Cook Book for Boys and Girls, which I recreated here using a fresh pear rather than a canned one.

But the salads below are two that I really, really love. One is a fruit-and rice-floozy that I adapted from James Beard, which sounds kind of horrid but is so good I could not stop eating it. I’ll admit that it was a bit too sweet for the year 2021 the first time I made it, a problem I “fixed” by adding some minced red onion (this is my answer to everything) and extra salt. I also cut the amount of rice in half, to make it fruitier. You could try it with mango or other fruits.

The second is a fresh, happier, and quite delicious version of canned fruit cocktail, which always made me a bit sad as a kid. I devised it to solve the problems of the original, in which the all the fruit tasted like sugar water; there were never enough grapes (and the grapes were hairy for some reason); and there were just two maraschino cherries, which we fought over. I added a lot of extra cherries, not maraschinos, and used honey and mint. It’s very refreshing!

*RECIPE: James Beard’s Rice Salad with Fruits

Makes 4-6 servings

  • 2 cups hot cooked rice (you can use leftover rice; just heat it a bit)

  • 1 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 cup supreme navel orange sections

  • 3/4 cup pineapple chunks

  • 3/4 cup sliced strawberries

  • 1/4 cup finely diced red onion (this is my addition; it needs it; you could start with 2 tablespoons and see how you feel)

  • 4 whole strawberries, cut in half

  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt (add this at the end, to taste)

  • 1/2 cup whole pecans (optional; I didn’t like the idea of these)

Poppy Seed Dressing

  • 1/2 cup sugar (Beard used 3/4 cup; I thought it was too much but up to you)

  • 2 teaspoon dry mustard

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1/3 cup white wine vinegar

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons onion juice (I used the juice from some jarred cocktail onions; if you don’t have it, the addition of the minced onion in the salad will suffice)

  • 1 cup vegetable oil (not olive oil)

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons poppy seeds

Toss the hot rice with the vegetable oil and allow to cool. Make the poppy seed dressing by combining the sugar, mustard, salt, vinegar, and onion juice in a bowl and beat for a few minutes with an electric beater or whirl briefly in a blender. Gradually beat or blend in the oil as for a mayonnaise. When thickened (it won’t be as thick as mayo), gradually beat in the poppy seeds until well blended. When the rice is cold, add the fruit and about half the dressing and toss gently to blend well. Add the extra salt to taste and toss again. Garnish with the strawberry halves. You may also garnish with pecans. I did not.

*RECIPE: Emily’s Fruit Cocktail Without the Can But with Extra Cherries

Serves 4-6

  • 2 cups grapes, sliced in half (white and red together is pretty)

  • 2 cups peeled and cubed fresh peach, tossed with a tiny bit of fresh lemon juice

  • 1 cup peeled and cubed pear, tossed with a tiny bit of fresh lemon juice

  • 2 cups pitted cherries sliced in half

  • zest of 1/2 large lime

  • juice of 1/2 large lime

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 3-4 mint leaves thinly sliced (chiffonade!), or to taste

Place the fruit in a serving bowl and let chill in fridge. In jar with a tight-fitting lid, shake together the lime zest, lime juice and honey. Pour over the salad, add the mint, and toss gently. Serve immediately. Very refreshing!

THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE. Enjoy your belle salades. Midweek, for paid subscribers, we’ll have another delicious salad incorporating fruit, greens and . . . blue cheese. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.

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