The Perfect Fruit book cover
After tasting the plum-apricot hybrid known as a pluot, Chip Brantley began his quest to learn more about this tasty, perfect stone fruit and the industry behind its creation. In this excerpt from his book, The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot , Brantley reveals how his journey began.
It was mid-summer then, and I was twenty-seven, and over the course of one month, I fell in love twice. First with Elizabeth: She and I had grown up in the same town, run in the same circles, dated mutual friends. It was only in California, where we both had moved because we were young and it was California, that we really began to know each other and, eventually, to love each other, though we didn’t really fall in love so much as decide, indirectly but at roughly the same time, to evolve into something more. It was as if someone had flipped the switch on us, rearranged the room in the dark, and then raised the lights to reveal a greater, more spacious arrangement, one in which we sat together to wonder: How did we exist otherwise?

She lived in San Francisco and I was in Los Angeles, so we commuted back and forth on the weekends. I worked as a Web producer for a struggling dot-com near the Sony film lot in Culver City, in a sleek, just-finished office building erected on the site of an old shoe factory. Everything about the company was new—the industry, the business model, the people—so new that it almost seemed not to exist yet. The building’s most interesting feature was a massive jumble of steel embedded in its northeast corner. The sculpture resembled a downed helicopter, sinking, and classes from nearby architecture programs came to admire it before the parking lot had been fully paved. Like many of the office buildings going up in that area then, ours looked better than it worked. The building leaked and it sweltered, and the acoustics were warehousian: Sometimes, you could barely make out what your neighbor was saying to you while a hushed conversation from across the giant main room—packed with five fruit iMacs and hollow-door desks—somehow bounced around the hum of the open floor plan and came in on a wire. You cocooned yourself in headphones; otherwise you were always looking up from your computer, checking over your shoulder to see if the voices were being directed at you. They were rarely directed at me, though. While the programmers programmed and the designers designed, we producers could not be said to have produced much of anything.

Instead, as we would later lay out in bullet points on our résumés, we oversaw, we supervised, we managed, and we performed many other vague duties requiring no measurable ability but allowing us plenty of time to reflect on our outside interests. I had a lot of those. I was fueled by the belief that since there was so much that was possible to like in life, I should try my best to like it all at least a little. After all, if I didn’t try something, how could I know for sure that I shouldn’t be doing more of it?

Among the many pursuits I failed to follow beyond an initial burst of enthusiasm were surfing, reforestation, orienteering, improv theater, home brewing, bass guitar, bullfighting, handicapping thoroughbreds, documentary filmmaking, and political speechwriting. I considered architecture school, film school, and journalism school and went for an interview at an international affairs masters program. Though I joined basketball and softball leagues, I was more often than not a no-show. Every now and then, I attended meetings of the Mars Society. I subscribed to a local theater, at which I caught exactly one Mike Leigh and half a Brecht. I kept an online application for the Peace Corps active for a couple of years but never submitted it. I vowed to get work on an Asia-bound freighter. I went out and drank too often, but had neither a regular haunt nor a favored drink. I was a groomsman in ten weddings, never the best man. I read several novels at once and rarely finished one. Wanting to work with my hands at something, I gleaned scrap metal and old planks of wood, which I kept, unworked, in the trunk of my car. I volunteered to be in charge of selling corporate tables for a charity's annual gala, but then I delivered only one. And it was for lack of trying.

For a while, this skimming of the world's muchness felt meaningful. I convinced myself that I was pursuing the examined life, taking nothing on someone else's word, exhausting my options. But at a certain point, I just felt exhausted. Simple exuberance was not a real embrace of anything and did not constitute a meaningful life. A meaningful life was built of commitments, and that I had none was a cause for brooding. This I liked to do from the top of the unfinished parking deck next to our offices. You could stand on the unrailed edge and look out onto some of the great tropes of the city: the tops of all those palms, the cement-lined Los Angeles River, the Hollywood Hills, and, on some smogless days, the sparkling atoll of downtown.

People went up there mostly for the cell coverage—to have a private job interview or a conversation with a girlfriend—but it was also a good place to dwell on all of the nagging questions. Most days during the workweek, I ate lunch alone at a French-Vietnamese diner on National Boulevard. I sat on a stool at the bar and read for a while from a book or worked the crossword puzzle in a Times left on the counter. On Tuesdays during the summer, though, I usually walked over to the Culver City Farmers' Market in the afternoon. They held it on one sidewalk of a small park downtown. The selection was limited, but there was enough to cobble together a lunch, and the market always made for good people-watching: small kids kicking around the grass; their parents and nannies flirting; old people sitting in the chairs in front of the small stage where light jazz and funk bands played; and professionals lingering, on lunch break from the growing number of tech companies and furniture galleries and ad agencies in the area.

I tried to keep it casual, as if the word were not new to me, and, feeling somewhat justified for having majored in French, I asked the man at the stand what the story was with the “plew-ohs.” He looked over at me and said, “PLEW-ott. PLUH-um and ay-prick-OT. Plu-ots.” “Pluots,” I said, turning it over in my mouth. They were, he said, three-quarters plum and one-quarter apricot. Most of them were grown a couple of hours north in the San Joaquin Valley, the vast inland basin of California I had experienced mostly on the fly along its western edge, the long, dry route of I-5 I had driven many times, back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When I thought about those few times I’d visited the interior of the Valley—a movie set in Bakersfield, a Saturday night bullfight in Madera, a brewpub in Fresno on the way to the Sierras—I could kind of picture citrus groves, but I was fairly sure that I had seen neither plums nor apricots on the trees. As a child of the suburbs from a part of the country thriving in neither fruit, I’m not even sure I knew that plums and apricots grew on trees. That a hybrid of the two fruits could exist was astounding.

There were many varieties of pluot, the guy at the market was saying, each with a microseason. They had names like Flavor King, Flavor Queen, and Flavor Supreme.

“What’s the best one?” I asked. “Flavor King,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Hands down.” And that’s all it took, really. I don’t know if it was the simple thrill of discovery or the joy over what I had with Elizabeth spilling over into other parts of my life, but what my feelings for the pluot felt most like was love. Not, it is probably not necessary to say, romantic love, but surely tied up somehow in the same kind of agitated hunger for more of everything that it stirs in a person. And while with Elizabeth the hunger had evolved gradually but felt sudden and overwhelming, with the pluot it had been sudden and overwhelming but felt gradual. All of my earlier dabbling felt like preparation for this moment. Instead of feeling a sense of been there/done that, I felt compelled to know everything about pluots. They were what I’d been waiting for. They were my Thing.

But now that they were my Thing, what would I do with them? Was I going to grow them somewhere? Work in a produce department and sell them? Instead, maybe I would champion them, give them as gifts, walk around town with a big sack of them on my back. Or, maybe I would just eat as many as I could. I did love to eat them. So did Elizabeth. As July faded to August, we found a steady supply of pluots at the markets and the pleasure of them became part of our courtship. Having found them late in the season, though, we had one more month of pluots and then they were gone. Going solely on precedent, I should have forgotten about them within a few weeks. But I did not forget about them, and six months later I quit my job and moved to San Francisco to be with Elizabeth. And a few months after that, on a warm, drizzly Wednesday in late June, we were both standing in the middle of the middle of California, in an experimental orchard, looking at the creator of the pluot, a man named Floyd Zaiger, who, in his open palm, held a plum.

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Excerpted from The Perfect Fruit by Chip Brantley. Copyright © 2009 by Chip Brantley. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<


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