Mouths to Feed: The 3,000-Mile Guilt Trip

By Celia Barbour

I had no idea.

I’d eaten fresh apricots before, seduced by their beauty into thinking that their flavor must be equally lovely, only to discover, again and again, that they tasted like damp felt. Even after I started wondering why anyone bothered growing them, I still bought them now and again. Because I love dried apricots and apricot preserves, I figured surely some part of their deliciousness could be traced back to the fresh fruit.

Then I tasted one in California and … oh my. Pure breathtaking astonishment.

apricot 2There were problems, however, starting with the 3,000-mile distance between my home and those sublime fruits. Commercial growers had failed to solve it satisfactorily. Apricots acquire all their flavor on the tree. Once picked, they will soften but won’t acquire more flavor (unlike, say, bananas and kiwis, which sweeten on your countertop). So when you find California-grown apricots in the supermarket, chances are they’ve been picked unripe and hard for transport, and won’t taste like much.

Local apricots, meanwhile, are simply not that good. Apricots are the first orchard fruits to ripen in spring. Their name even hints at this eagerness: It comes from the Latin praecoquum, from which “precocious” is also derived. In order to set fruit, the trees need a brief, cold winter followed by a calm, reliable, even-tempered spring. Which, in case you haven’t noticed, is not something we have here in the Hudson Valley.

So I began ordering my own.

Now, I dislike the phrase “guilty pleasure.” It smacks of the faux self-rebuke that infuses so much of our present-day relationship to food, health and most other things that we supposedly care about. That old “I know I shouldn’t but I just can’t help myself.” Like: really? Sure you can.

apricot jam 1Plus it’s a cliché, and editors berate writers who use clichés. After a while, we start to get twitchy whenever we feel tempted to use one.

But today I am prepared to come to the defense not only of mail-ordered California apricots but of the limp cliché that best sums up my feelings about them.   After all, clichés persist because they work. Like simple tools — like the levers and pulleys the seventh graders are studying in physics — they reduce the amount of work required to do a heavy-lifting job. “Guilty pleasure” has been toiling away for English speakers since 1907, and it abides because every day, each of us probably does something enjoyable, fun or easy that flies in the face of our purported belief system. Like when an environmentalist helps herself to ice cream from the (nuclear-powered electric) freezer or a Tea Partier sends his kids to public school.

Or when a mostly locavore who supports regional farms and worries about her carbon footprint goes online and orders a case of organic apricots to be shipped right to her door from Frog Hollow Farm, in Brentwood, Calif.

One nice thing about being a journalist is that from time to time you can wrangle an assignment that allows you to get to the bottom of a topic that is eating at you. In this spirit, I wrote an article for O, The Oprah Magazine a while back about online mail-order foods. For it, I interviewed Christopher Weber, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. He’d done a study of the environmental impact of e-tailing and found that it’s surprisingly modest — equivalent to or less than shopping at a grocery store — as long as you order directly from the maker/grower.

So why do I still feel guilty? Well, for one thing my apricots aren’t cheap. Plus, they come swaddled in bulky packaging. But once a year, when I need to remember how drop-dead amazing a perfectly grown fruit can taste, I go ahead and order them. And when the local farmers bring their crop to the farmers market, I support them by making jam.

Because in the end, when the pleasure is great enough, guilt doesn’t stand a chance.

Quick apricot jam

This is not a long-lived preserve, with sterilized jars and the like. This jam will keep in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks, tops. Stir it into yogurt or eat it on biscuits or toast.

2 pounds apricots (about 20)

3 cups sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 whole almonds or 1 seed from inside the apricot pit  (see note)

  1. Place a small saucer in the refrigerator.
  2. Quarter and pit the apricots. Transfer them to a small saucepan, add the sugar and the almonds, if using, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for about 25 minutes, skimming any foam that forms on the surface.
  3. To test if the jam is done, place a small dollop on the cold plate; if a skin forms after a minute or two, it’s done. Remove the pot from the stove. Stir in the lemon juice and add the apricot kernel, if using. Cool slightly, then transfer to a jar and refrigerate.

Note: The seed inside an apricot’s pit is related to the bitter almond. You can crack open a pit and use the seed to add a subtle perfume to your jam. But don’t use too many — these seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide, which could be harmful in large quantities.

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