Life lessons plucked from pears

In 30 years of eating anjou pears, a friend told me, he'd had But three ripe ones. Why not just eat apples?

From an aesthetic standpoint, pears are first-rate. Think of all those still-life paintings of pears, with their voluptuous curves and subtle gradations of gold, russet, green, and rose; the shape of the fruit caressing the light and shadow of the painter's brush.

I used to pick pears in the orchards of Washington State, and I soon came to appreciate their natural beauty - even though picking pears was no delight. The unripe fruit was heavy and often covered with the sticky secretions of insects. And those sensual curves caused the fruit to nestle together in the bins, robbing pickers of precious air spaces, so we'd have to pick more before the bins were full. Yet, even then, I found pears lovely as the sun slanted through the leaves and danced sinuous detours around the fruit.

But all that artistic appeal was not enough to make me forget the discomforts of picking pears in the August heat. After a few seasons, I quit.

I still picked apples in the fall, though: Their lighter weight and rounder shapes made the picking easier, and the cooler weather helped, too. Often I'd be working next to a harvested pear orchard, and I'd smell the delectable fragrance of missed fruit that had ripened and fallen to the ground, creating a kind of heavenly pear-mash smell.

Those tree-ripened pears were not good to eat, as they became grainy and gritty on the tree, but their scent was wonderful. To me, it was the quintessential smell of the season.

It's been many years since I picked fruit, but I still find myself contemplating the dual nature of pears, this time from a consumer's viewpoint. First, consider eating: A perfectly ripened pear is a delight to the palate, with a delicate, aromatic flavor and a tender, smooth texture. The pear suggests a European sensibility, a luxuriant, refined appreciation for the finer things in life.

But the pear resists ease of enjoyment. As with so many luxuries, the perfectly ripened pear seems always just out of reach, maddeningly elusive.

Its ripening habits are confounding: Not only must pears be picked before they are ripe, but the picked fruit ripens from the inside to the outside. When a pear is soft to the touch, it is usually rotten at its core. And, except for Bartletts, pears don't change color to indicate ripeness. A grass-green pear can be ripe - or not.

All these ripening quirks have caused many people I know to abandon pears, or nearly so. They've cut into hard pears with undeveloped flavor or grainy texture, and they've thrown away pears that had gone rotten, their flesh brown and mushy beneath a deceptively unchanging skin.

A friend told me that, in 30 years of eating Anjou pears, he'd eaten only three ripe ones. And a pear grower confided that "a ripe Anjou is a freak of nature."

Promoters of the fruit try to counteract this frustration by making the ripening process sound easy. Just press near the base of the stem gently with your thumb, they advise, and when it yields slightly, it's ripe. Lately, I've noticed that supermarket pears even come labeled with these instructions. But this method is by no means as reliable as the Bartlett's color-changing indicator, and there's no simple way of predicting when the pears you buy today will be ripe.

To complicate matters, pears remain in the state of perfect ripeness only briefly, and quickly begin to spoil. One must stay up all night to eat a pear, an old saying goes - in order to catch that moment of perfection. Perhaps that's why the English call an overripe pear "sleepy."

But pear marketers insist that you can control this ripening process. If you're eager to eat your pears soon, they say, place them in a paper bag and let them stand at room temperature - for some unspecified amount of time.

The first time I followed this advice, I completely forgot about the crumpled brown bag in the corner of my counter - until it was too late. So I tried again.

Half a dozen pears have been sitting in a paper bag all week, and I'm still not sure they're ripe. The skin is wrinkling, and the part near the stem does seem to give, ever so slightly, but when I cut a slice of one, it crunched like an apple.

Speaking of apples, why not just give up on pears and eat apples instead? Some people do just that. Food writer Molly O'Neill - who usually waxes euphoric about her subject - says she turned against pears early in life (probably because she ate them first in canned form) and finds it "difficult to forgive a raw pear for not being an apple." To support her bias against the fruit, she cites a 17th-century French chef who called the pear a "poor relation" to the apple.

I think all of this is just sour grapes, so to speak, from those who lack the patience or flexibility to deal with pears. Yes, they are a bit fussy, perhaps even difficult, but people used to think they were worth the trouble.

In ancient times, the pear was considered superior to the apple, and Homer called it "the gift of the gods." In 17th-century France, Ms. O'Neill's cited chef must have been one of the few people not infatuated by pears. Even Louis XIV named the pear one of his favorite fruits.

By the 18th century, Belgian growers had developed soft, juicy varieties that made pears even more appealing. And after Americans began growing the fruit in the 17th century (from seeds imported from England), pears became wildly popular in this country. By the 19th century, New Englanders were said to have "pear mania."

Much of this enthusiasm probably had to do with the realities of life in cold climates, before the days of imported fruit. Imagine the thrill of eating a delectable, juicy pear in the dead of winter, when no other soft fruit could be had.

Of course, it would have been worth the care and patience to coddle the pear into perfect ripeness. In those days, I doubt that anyone would have indulged in such wasteful behavior as slicing into an unripe pear, or forgetting about a stash of ripening pears until they were rotten. So I have been practicing with pears, buying them more often, surrendering my meal plans to their schedule.

Sometimes I have a ripe pear in my morning oatmeal, or in a salad with blue cheese and toasted walnuts. Sometimes I have no pears when I wish I had them. At other times, when several of the firm winter pears, such as Bosc or Anjou, ripen at once, I make an upside-down tart of caramelized pears topped with puff pastry, fine enough to share with others.

Yes, ripening pears is a challenge, and yes, it can be annoying, but it teaches me to be patient. To pay attention. To be flexible in my desires. And (when I am fortunate enough to have attained that fleeting moment of ripeness) to act decisively and embrace the tender sweetness of that moment fully. Those kinds of lessons just don't come with imported fruit.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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