John Jeremiah Sullivan Discovers the Secret of the Quince

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The quinces were weird. We didn’t know what to make of them, figuratively or literally. Did people eat them? They could have come from space. In fact on Sesame Street there used to be a skit that involved two aliens. They couldn’t reach the fruit on their planet’s fruit trees. One alien was too short, the other couldn’t bend its arms. When that came on I would glance outside at our quince bush. Extraterrestrial nectarines: that’s what they looked like. Beautiful, I realize now. Like a cross between a lemon and pear. (They symbolize fertility.) In the street-view picture, the quince bush was still there, but in the satellite view, taken five years later, you can see it’s been mowed to the ground. In the grass where it was there’s a pale, almost perfect circle.

I hadn’t thought of the quince bush for a couple of decades until I visited an old friend in LA last year, one I’d kept in contact with but hadn’t seen in several years. I’d flown into town that afternoon and was supposed to leave at dawn—it was one of those situations where it made no sense to go to sleep. You’d just be torturing yourself. Kevin West: a friend from college. We were in his apartment in Koreatown, a nice pad with a view of the city lights, though noticeably smaller than his old place in Laurel Canyon. He’d recently downsized his life. He had a bottle of good rye whiskey and some olives. At one point he was explaining to me that all modern fruit preserving, in cans and jars, descends from a discovery the Romans made—that if you cooked the otherwise inedible quince in honey and sealed it in jars, it became sweet and made excellent jam. Quince in honey, as a preserve, spread all over the world. The Portuguese called it marmelada. Marmalade.

-John Jeremiah Sullivan, in Lucky Peach (via Medium), on the art of canning. Read more stories from Sullivan in the Longreads Archive.

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