Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the accidental cashew

While some vegetables have been invested with the power of prophecy (remember weirding peas?), fruit and fate have enjoyed a long and notorious partnership. Apples in particular have played a pivotal role in the expulsion of humankind from Paradise, as well as in the fall of certain snow-white maidens into irresistable catatonia. And it was a strawberry-embroidered handkerchief that put the final stain on Desdemona's innocence, condemning her to an unjust death at the hands of her jealous husband, Othello.

In December of 1951, a tart bite of cashew fruit (the ones above are from Rio de Janeiro) set off one of those tiny accidents that can change the entire course of a life, in this case bringing together Brazil and the U.S., poetry and landscaping. Elizabeth Bishop, an American poet for whom I harbor a profound admiration and escalating obsession, had been planning to spend several days in Rio de Janeiro before stepping back aboard a ship to continue her trip around South America.

At the home of a mutual acquaintance, Bishop was offered a taste of this strange fruit, known to Americans mainly by its uppermost crescent-shaped nut. The fruit's toxins, benign to most, coursed through her body and caused it to swell up in a violent allergic reaction.

Her host became her nurse, and convalescence merged with courtship, so that at the end of several weeks spent recuperating in a Rio apartment facing the Atlantic Ocean, Bishop found herself in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, a Rio socialite from a prominent family and self-taught landscape architect of sorts. Several weeks accumulated into fifteen years with Lota in Brazil, two collections of poetry, a Pulitzer Prize, and a rainforest house in the mountains outside Rio that Lota designed with a studio for Bishop that looked out onto a waterfall. There is much more to the story, including more years in Brazil and another house in Ouro Preto (where I'm staying now), that true fanatics can read about in the biography Rare and Commonplace Flowers.

On a more lyrical note, Bishop's poetry is waiting for your hungry eyes here. The most famous are probably "One Art" and "In the Waiting Room." My first favorite was "The Fish," and I also love "The Weed," "At the Fishhouses," "Questions of Travel," and basically all of her animal poems, particularly the tragi-comical "Giant Toad," "Strayed Crab," and "Giant Snail" of the series "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics," which I sadly can't find a copy of online (but will post once I get back to my own computer).

Now that I have exploited the cashew to lead you through grandma's fireside story hour and to impose my personal literary tastes on you, I shall return to your initial pressing questions:

Cashew what?
That's where the nut comes from?

Yes, your deluxe roasted nuts come from this bright Brazilian fruit known as caju. But, wait, it gets weirder, grotesque even. The cashew "fruit," that is to say the juicy rosy part, is no fruit, my friend, but rather an impostor, a pseudofruit, an accessory fruit, a peduncle. The real fruit is what we call the "nut," which is really no nut in scientific terms, but a seed, one that begins as a drupe hanging off the end of the peduncle (that means the "fruit" hangs off the tree, "nut" side down). Incidentally, the fruit is also known as the "cashew apple," bringing us back to the initial matter of fateful fruit.

Yes, it's all very confusing and a little upsetting. Perhaps the wikipedia entry can settle your nerves. A drier but definitely more fact-checked explanation is here. If you want to know about how your cashew "nuts" are steamed open and cooked to remove the potentially toxic outer shell, this article by living and raw foods enthusiasts is pretty accessible.


Emily said...

Found your blog by way of looking for an image to Elizabeth Bishop, to go with the novel The More I Owe You, about her time in Brazil. Thanks, Kale Daikon, for explaining the cashew--certainly a weird fruit.

kale daikon said...

Ha! That's great. Yes, I've been planning to read the novel too but haven't tracked it down yet.