Photo: Mikkel Vang
Her surgeon father was austere, formal, remote. But put a mango in his hand and you'd catch a glimpse of the little island boy picking fruit and shooting coconuts out of trees. Joanne Chen savors a memory.
There is a ritual to eating a mango in my family. First you must hold it and appreciate its smoothness and congratulate yourself for picking such a beautiful specimen. Next, you must press your finger against it, and confirm that, yes, it's just the right firmness: This will be a good one. Then you pare off the skin with a sharp knife (my father, a surgeon, did this expertly and quickly, but never quickly enough) and cut the fruit into pieces. Last, you poke the pieces with a toothpick and devour them. As children, my siblings and I would conclude this ritual by fighting over who got the pit—and therefore the honor of eating with our hands.

Imagine my indignation, then, a few years back when a publicist for the National Mango Board appeared in my office bubbling with ideas on how to make eating mangoes less messy, quicker, and more convenient. She showed me how to cut crosshatches through its golden flesh and scoop out the dainty cubes. She pulled out from her bag some contraption called a mango slicer, and cut the mango into neat pieces with one fell thump. She informed me that one cup of the fruit has 110 calories, 25 percent of the Daily Value of vitamin A, and 80 percent of vitamin C. "We think Americans will eat more mangoes if we show them how to make it easy," she said.

"I see," I responded, because I knew she meant well. But I didn't see. To me, mangoes aren't meant to be easy. They're a complex fruit, deserving of time and effort. A mango slides around in your palm as you pare it, for example, giving you extra moments to breathe in its sweet, tangy scent. And sticky fingers are part of the fun.

For much of my life, these experiences felt like a family secret. In rural New England, where I grew up in the 1970s and '80s, mangoes were unheard of at the local Stop & Shop. I knew them because my father, who often attended business meetings in Boston, an hour and a half away, would brave the winter chill, rush-hour traffic, and parking headaches to make that extra stop in the crowded streets of Chinatown. "Look what I found!" he would say when he returned, and the five of us would sit down for dinner, anticipating the taste of it at the end of the meal—a taste described as "exotic" and "tropical" by most Americans but comforting and familiar to me.

My mother was originally a city girl from Beijing, but my father grew up in "island country," having moved with his family from southern China to Indonesia when he was young. Sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, we'd gather round the kitchen table for tea, fruit, and the newspaper, and he'd sketch this fantastical collection of big and small islands on a yellow legal pad. He'd tell us about how he'd shoot at coconuts with his slingshot as a boy and pluck luscious mangoes right off a tree. His parents had no money and eight kids to feed (he always reminded us of this). But out in the wild everything was his to take, and he felt like a prince. I pictured this precocious child left to create his own adventures, and the jungle—with its lizards, squirrels, and abandoned birds' nests—as his playground.
As a girl, I worshipped him and also wished he were somehow different. While other dads could be found in the backyard, firing up the grill, enjoying beer and burgers with their buddies, my dad worked late and on weekends. He'd sometimes come home so utterly exhausted that he'd barely say a word when he pulled his car into the driveway. I think my friends were scared of him. Whereas their dads hung out in jeans and corduroys and cool sweatshirts, my dad was always in a jacket and tie. Silently, he watched the evening news.

He rarely shouted at us, but he was serious and often taciturn. "You'll see when you grow up," my mother would say, explaining how difficult things could be at a hospital, even for a talented surgeon, if you speak with an accent and you look different.

His culinary lessons to me were strictly practical: He explained why I could put lemon or milk in my tea but not both; he showed me why it made sense to add salt to sweeten pineapple; and he taught me that when a mango turns ripe, you can smell it, and there's some give to the flesh when you press it but your finger's imprint doesn't stay. I learned from him a respect for the purity of taste. He ate his fruits straight, as if they were sacred. To this day, as much as I cherish mangoes, I'm unmoved by mango chutneys, salsas, and sauces, and by the odd concoctions whipped up by loquacious chefs on TV. I prefer instead to eat the fruit plain or tossed in a salad, where the slices are big enough for the flavor to sing out.

For my father, there was no need to wax poetic about food. If it tasted bad, you'd toss it. If it tasted good, you'd drive, walk, or fly as far as necessary to find more of it. That's all. But every once in a while, he'd cut loose a little, and I'd see this genuine passion for food—and life—brimming within.

It happened every year when we took family vacations to tropical islands. There, vendors would chop up bighearted, gorgeous fruits—including the freshest mangoes I've ever eaten—and offer them, with a welcoming smile, in giant plastic cups. My father, in his goofy Balinese-print swim shorts and Charles Nelson Reilly reading glasses, would spy one of the stalls across the beach, and his eyes would light up. I loved that—that look of pure joy. My mother would shake her head. "You don't know how clean it is!" she'd warn. (She trusts no one and insists on eating only cooked food in unfamiliar places.) But my father, groping for his wallet in the beach bag, would trek across the hot sand anyway, my sister skipping alongside him.
He was the father of my dreams on these vacations. So what if he never coached Little League? Man, could he swim fast! He had Aquaman powers, left over from his island childhood. He taught us how to snorkel, how not to be afraid of the water. He introduced us to bodysurfing, and we were swept along by gigantic waves. One time we were swimming in the ocean when all of a sudden, this ugly fish swam toward us and nibbled at his torso. I was horrified, but he laughed and laughed, amazed at how brave and playful these creatures were.

My father died almost 12 years ago. At his funeral, my voice felt so weak and my legs so wobbly I could barely read the passage my sister had selected, about how life, death, celebrations, and disappointments are all part of a magnificent continuum. It came from a book on Buddhism. I found out later that Buddha himself was said to have gone into mango groves to meditate and find tranquillity.

Recently, my mother, brother, and I were vacationing in Hong Kong. One evening, having just feasted on a five-course dinner, we stopped on our way back to the hotel to browse through a supermarket. There, a huge mango caught our eye. I mean huge! The size of a brick! We were stuffed, but we just had to take the massive specimen back to our room and eat it right away. I called up room service to get a sharp knife and extra napkins (though, alas, no toothpicks), and my mother washed (very thoroughly) our lucky find at the sink with warm water and tissues. We passed it around, delighting in its heft and wonderful scent, and then my mother pared off the skin and cut it into pieces, some big, some small, just as my father would have. I imagined him putting a slice all at once into his mouth, chewing and nodding, then reaching for another: his true mark of approval. And then he would tell us those stories again, about his slingshot and those big, bright fruits. I could hear his voice, clear as day, as I bit into the first slippery slice and took in the flavor, the memories, the messiness—savoring it all.


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