Indian Mangoes in America
New America Media, News Analysis, Sandip Roy Posted: May 10, 2007
Editor’s Note: The arrival of the first shipment of Indian mangoes to the United States in 17 years has provoked delirious excitement in the Indian diaspora. But is an Alphonso eaten on the streets of New York as good as the memory of the one eaten on the streets of Mumbai on a long-ago sweltering summer day? Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show UpFront on KALW 91.7 FM.
Alphonso, the king of mangoes, has come to America. In the Indian epic Ramayana, Lord Rama spends 14 years in exile in the forest before he can claim his throne. Alphonso has had to wait for 17. The long wait is finally over. On May 1, 2007, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns welcomed the first Indian mangoes arriving through American ports. Legally. (I am not counting the undocumented ones smuggled in between layers of dirty laundry by innocent-looking gray-haired aunties.)
If the Alphonsos had come by last November it might have translated into a few extra Indian-American votes for President Bush’s party. Nixon might have gone to China, but Bush will be remembered forever by Indians as the president who said, “We look forward to eating Indian mangoes in America.” Nine words that ended almost two decades of homesick cravings. Along the way Bush also signed an India-U.S. nuclear cooperation deal, although some Indians feel that was just the side agreement to the mango deal.
The near hysteria in the Indian diaspora proves it. The community is practically in a state of fruity orgasm. “It dribbles down cheeks, lips, neck and hands and I am lost in dizzying joy,” oozes Prem Kishore in the weekly India Post. On the popular blog site SepiaMutiny, BengaliChick writes about mangoes as part of “a sensual body buffet.” SP says mangoes, chocolate and “maaaaybe southern Italian clams” are the only things that fall into the “Better than Sex” category. Janeofalltrades has some handy pick-up lines: “Hi, I’m Alphonso. Do you like mangoes?”
A community known for spelling bee prowess and a Booker prize or two suddenly has new bragging rights. “I used to believe that true mango lovers could sue American groceries for false advertising -- the tasteless, fibrous, tart and flavor-challenged fruit they sold did not deserve the name of mango,” former United Nations Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor told SAJAForum, the blog site for the South Asian Journalists Association. “Now we should urge every American we know to try a real Indian mango.”
Those are fighting words. I would have expected a suave multilateralist like Dr. Tharoor to be a little more diplomatic. Now I love my Alphonso, Himsagar, Kesar as much as the next mango connoisseur, but I am getting nervous. In our unilateral rush to crown our mango the “king of fruits,” we could be sliding dangerously close to Mexican- and Filipino-mango bashing. Those were the hapless fruits that most of us had to make do with until now. Could this my-mango-is-better-than-yours braggadocio end up stirring up interethnic tensions?
It certainly has sparked some intra-ethnic rumbles already. Even the Indians can’t agree on which mango is best. The first mango has barely been sliced and we are already hearing the rumblings of civil war. “The best mangoes are of course the basic Hyderabadi be-nishaan. This Alphonso craze, I just don't get it,” writes Shilpa Mankikar on the SAJA blog. “Alphonso may be adored in Mumbai, but in Lucknow they swear by Dussehri and Khajri. For my money, the Banarsi Langda far surpasses any variety,” asserts Pallavi Shah.
My head is already spinning. India has about 1500 varieties of mangos, including 1000 commercial ones. I feel like we are entering the surrealism of Mango Idol. Make that irradiated Mango Idol. It’s true. America wants the mango but not the mango weevil so the fruits are irradiated.
I hope that if the American market really takes off (and with the U.S.-India Business Council staging mango handover ceremonies, there’s obviously some serious mango-power behind it), it won’t mean that suddenly lucrative New York markets will suck the best mangoes away from the giant piles of mangoes on Mumbai streets that are the hallmark of an Indian summer. The New York Times already talks about Alphonso mango trees being planted in Mexico. Does that mean mango maquiladoras shipping crates of mangoes to the United States under the cover of NAFTA while the original Alphonso is shunned, perhaps one day even sued for copyright or patent violation? I remember the fights over patents on turmeric and Basmati rice.
I still haven’t delved into my first slice of succulent irradiated mango. There’s a part of me that’s too nervous to try. I savor that first mango of summer, its cold orange-gold flesh the only thing that made sweltering muggy days tolerable. The loss of that taste was in some ways the price of immigration. It lived on in our imaginations for decades. Now it might be available at Costco!
Sometimes I want to hold onto that sweet-tart taste I’ve lost and not think that with enough money (and irradiation), everything can be re-created.
This week I fly to India. This year, at least, I’ll be eating my mango there.
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