The latest Eating and Drinking Poems post is a nostalgic, mouth-watering homage to the warm, sweet taste of summer, the sticky juice of the mango, and Mary Oliver’s sharp, delicious poetry. For those who are lucky enough to live somewhere warm and vaguely tropical, enjoy. But even if you’re unlucky enough to still be caught up in the last dredges of winter, go ahead and kick off your sandals, lounge under a heat lamp, and day-dream about summer living and sweet, sticky mangoes.
For me, the mango is a nostalgic fruit. Mangoes taste like Motown songs and Billboard hits from the 1970s and 1980s: “What a Fool Believes” and “How ‘Bout Us?” and anything Earth, Wind & Fire. Mangoes feel like 232nd Place Elementary School, where the playground had no grass, just cracked asphalt, and the lunch workers served spaghetti with an ice cream scoop. Mangoes remind me of the brown-and-orange shag carpet in my growing-up house in Carson, California.
Mangoes were fifty cents each when I was little. Sometimes they went on sale for thirty cents, and my mom or dad would buy an entire case or two. Whenever they walked in the door toting the heavy wooden cases, each containing about 50 mangoes, it was like Christmas. We were a family of seven, so even if we held back and ate two or three each, per day, a case of mangoes didn’t last long.
You don’t need a spoon to eat a mango. Clean fingers and a good serrated knife will do. Don’t peel it. You know from its shape which way the pit sits inside, so cut the fruit as close to one flat side of the pit as you can. Then the other side. You now have two halves and the center disc with the pit. Use the knife to score grid lines on each half, stopping just short of slicing through the skin. Pushing at the skin side, invert the mango half so that the grid cuts stand up and out like New York skyscrapers on the curved horizon of the earth. (That’s what we always said, anyway.) Bite the mango skyscrapers straight out of the skin. Then you can peel the strip of skin from the center disk and eat the mango flesh off the pit (which we called buto–the bone). You will get messy and mango juice will stain your fingers, but that’s the way to eat them. As you suck the sweetness from the pit like a dog gnaws on its precious bone, sticky mango drippings will spread past the neat borders of your lips and onto your cheeks.
Now, some decades later, my unrestrained, sticky-faced mango habit has grown into a broader enjoyment of my favorite luscious fruit. Yes, I still get messy with the mango. But I’ve also experimented, converting those plain skyscraper mouthfuls into some mature food combinations: mango-spinach salad, mango salsa, and the elegant mango mousse.
Perhaps the mango (or any food) is like a poem—it invokes different responses in different people, depending on the taster’s previous experiences and exposure. I grew up with the mango, and it speaks nostalgia to me. But when Mary Oliver, unfamiliar with this fruit, met it for the first time, its sweetness communicated a different message.
I met the mango.
At first there were four or five of them
in a bowl.
They looked like stones you find
in the rivers of Pennsylvania
when the waters are low.
That size, and almost round.
But this was a rich house, and clever too.
After salmon and salads,
mangoes for everyone appeared on blue plates,
each one cut in half and scored
and shoved forward from its rind, like an orange flower,
cubist and juicy.
When I began to eat
All through the sweetness I heard voices,
men and women talking about something—
another country, and trouble.
It wasn’t my language, but I understood enough.
Jungles, and death. The ships
leaving the harbors, their holds
filled with mangoes.
Children, brushing the flies away
from their hot faces
as they worked in the fields.
Men, and guns.
The voices all ran together
so that I tasted them in the taste of the mango,
a sharp gravel in the flesh.
Later, in the kitchen, I saw the stones
like torn-out tongues
embedded in the honeyed centers.
They were talking among themselves—
a few lines of a song
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