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Where Y'Eat: The Grapefruit of Wrath

Ian McNulty

How a fruitful tree by an abandoned house signals one of southeast Louisiana's delicious harvests.

This is the story of an abandoned house, a tree and one of the great, but quiet, harvest seasons in southeast Louisiana. The house is down the block from mine and it’s been empty ever since Hurricane Katrina. You can’t really tell that with a quick glance, though. It isn’t boarded up, and we neighbors trade off collecting the litter, the election flyers and the phone books that accumulate around it. I won’t say this isn’t annoying, but my neighbors and I have found one small compensation for living next to it — it’s an annual reward, one that’s ripe for the picking just about now.

The reward is a grapefruit tree. I had not even noticed it on our block before Katrina, but in the years since, it has grown into a tall, lush, hugely productive fruit-making machine, one hung with big grapefruits like a Christmas tree full of ornaments. It’s rooted right in front of this empty house and, just as my neighbors and I feel an obligation to pick up the junk mail or secure its wind-blown door from time to time, we all feel a natural entitlement to the grapefruit this tree dangles before us.

As local food traditions go, Louisiana citrus is not nearly so sexy as seafood or big hearty gumbos. But it’s still one of those distinctive facets of local food culture that is hard-wired to local tastes and tied to our sense of the season. As temperatures drop, we see pickup trucks, roadside farm stands and farmers markets fill up with sacks of navel oranges, and satsumas, ruby red grapefruit, Meyer lemons, Louisiana sweets, mandarins and kumquats. Most of the Louisiana citrus harvest comes from Plaquemines Parish, and a lot of growers there were very hard hit by Hurricane Isaac this year. It was a reminder, as if our region needed another, of how fragile and precious our homegrown food resources are.

For another reminder, you could just look at that grapefruit tree on my block, hear how passersby talk about it with a mix of awe and lust and see the ingenuity they employ to get its fruit. First to go, of course, is the low hanging fruit, easily plucked by anyone on her way to the streetcar. Then, you might notice a bicycle just leaning against the tree, unsecured. Look up, and there’s the bike’s owner, ambling around in the limbs for higher fruit. Tree pruners, jury-rigged fishing nets — all the tools start coming out as the fruit line moves up the foliage — and then, the ultimate, a city worker with a front end loader who once drove his machine up to the tree, elevated the bucket, climbed into that bucket and plucked fruit from the very peak.

I hope someday someone will be able to get their hands on this empty house on my block and fill it up with neighbors again. Should that happen, I bet they’ll feel possessive of the grapefruit tree growing just in front of their porch. But I’m hopeful I can still negotiate for the share of the yield. After all, I can offer lots of expertise from the ad hoc community harvest that a ripe Louisiana citrus inspires every year.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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