Eating and Drinking Poems: Mary Oliver’s “The Mango”

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.


Mango Mousse
Print Recipe
Mango Mousse
Print Recipe
  1. Combine pureed mangoes, sweetened condensed milk, and lime juice.
  2. In separate bowl, whip cream until stiff. Fold into mango mixture.
  3. Chill a few hours before serving.
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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.

The Mango

One evening

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.

Mossy green.

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

things happened.

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—

family news,

a few lines of a song

—Mary Oliver


Photo by JayD Photography. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Monica Sharman.

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  1. says

    Wonderful post, Monica. So interesting to learn of the mango’s associations for you.

    I am happy that Trader Joe’s carries very good mangoes that someone has taken the time to cut (so I don’t have to). I especially like the dried, unsulphered mango.

    I will have to try your recipe. It looks luscious.

    Wonderful Mary Oliver poem.

  2. Ben says

    The mango, for me, tastes of holidays and freedom from care. My father is from Mauritius, and his family home has a mango tree growing in the yard. It was always a treat to eat mangoes from that tree, because they are not only the finest mangoes I’ve ever tasted, they are amongst the finest foods I’ve ever tasted.

    Juicy, succulent, refreshing and sweet like that first gulp of pure water in a parched mouth.

    • says

      Wow, Ben. A mango tree in my own yard would be a childhood dream come true.

      Freedom from care, yes. Such a contrast from Mary Oliver’s poem (and what she “tasted” didn’t come from her own experiences but what she imagined of others’).

      In a few words, you have spoken so much about you, and about your father’s family. Thank you.

  3. Liz says

    I love how this post focuses so much on memory, on how readers like Ben and Maureen are focusing on their own mango memories. :) For me, I think of a summer in Guatemala, walking around the tiny village to sit in plastic chairs while old grandmothers chased chickens in their yard, force-feeding me stringy yellow mangos, and then laughing at how the yellow flesh caught in my teeth.

    • says

      Fascinating, how foods have the power to do that. I love your memories of Guatemala! I can hear those grandmothers laughing, and they sound like the chickens they’re chasing. :)

      Those stringy things getting stuck between my teeth always frustrated me. But there is a non-stringy mango! It’s yellow, not so much green/red, and it’s called “Champagne mango” or sometimes “Philippine mango.” Smaller and more expensive, but worth it.

  4. says

    From one MangoMomma to another – “when i began to eat, things happened!”

    I knew nothing of this fruit as a kid, after all, we ate iceberg lettuce and called it a veggie; but, nowadays -whoowee, it’s a treat for us. And, we eat ’em your way and drip sweet juice down our chins and to our elbows. It’s one of the only times I happily tolerated elbows on the table during a meal. 😉

    Thanks for sharing all of this.


  5. says

    Monica this was so good. Can’t wait to make the mousse! Dreamt last night I was picking all the mangoes I could carry on the side of a very long, desolate road. No kidding.

  6. says

    It was fun to read what you associate with mangoes, and how your family eats them….your mousse recipe looks delicious and do-able…our girl loves it when I make her mango smoothies with diced frozen mango, a little chopped up frozen pineapple, Greek yogurt, half a banana and almond milk.

  7. says

    The first time I ever ate a fresh mango was when my husband and I flew to the Philippines to adopt our son. We’d flown out of wintry Boston and, the morning after we arrived, sat outside eating mangoes for breakfast while drinking in the warm tropical air.

    That’s what mangoes taste like to me.

    I love these Eating and Drinking poems. Good, good stuff.

  8. says

    Lovely post! I have 14 mango trees that are in full bloom right now. Mango season on the way! I also have a whole chapbook of mango poems: Bud Break at Mango House. I’d love to send it to you if you p.m. me your address. And, for future reference, a mango cookbook coming out this fall from University Press of Florida (some great recipes from miami chefs in there!).


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