Forbidden Fruit

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Photo by Corby Kummer

Last week I emerged from the Grand Street stop on New York's B train, the heart of Chinatown, and encountered a scene I'd never seen in this country: a stack of fresh durians, the unforgettably rusticated Asian fruit, being cut open and the flesh scooped out to lined-up customers.

Anyone traveling in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand and Hong Kong, is shown the fruit and told the mystique: elegant hotels won't let it in the kitchen, airlines won't let it in the cargo hold, the better sort won't go anywhere near it, all because of the stench it emits. That's before it's opened, when it looks like a sculpture devised by a Baroque or Mannerist architect working in wood rather than stone. It's an undeniably neat object: I've got a miniature wooden one on my mantelpiece.

But that smell. It's somewhere between sexual and sewage, which is why people are both drawn and repelled by it. The flesh, though, is something different: there's only the vaguest trace of the scent, like musk dosed in the proper quantity so it can be used in an expensive perfume and not be overpoweringly vile. It's custardy and lush, as if it's pudding with its own subtle butterscotch sauce. And it also looks like some sort of organ, which is why some delicate sensibilities just can't stomach, let alone smell it.

I developed a love of durian that went beyond the model, but a few years ago could only find it frozen, in shallow plastic trays much like the ones the vendor I happened on was scooping the flesh into. I would patiently defrost them for a few days in the refrigerator and then feast with a spoon.

Now I can have the same but much more sensual pleasure with fresh durian--but can I have it in Boston yet? I'll have to check--and welcome all reports of fresh-durian sightings.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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