August 1, 2014 | by James McWilliams
Whither the breadfruit?
There’s such a thing as the Breadfruit Institute, and there should be. Researchers consider the species a “NUS”—“neglected and underutilized species.” But Ian Cole, the Breadfruit Institute’s collection manager, thinks that’s insane. He told me, “If you had a breadfruit tree in your yard, you would have food all year round!”
I don’t have a breadfruit tree in my yard, though, and neither do you, if you live in the lower forty-eight. Cole wants that to change. He wants the world to eat breadfruit.
He may well get his wish. Breadfruit, a starchy fruit that looks like a green pimpled softball, is enjoying a bout of sudden popularity. It’s gluten free, dense with protein, and rich in vitamin B and fiber. It has the mild, earthy flavor of a tuber. And it looks pretty neat: what appears to be a singular globe of fruit is in fact thousands of tiny fruits fused together like a mosaic. The media is in thrall. The Daily Mail calls breadfruit “a wonder food”; the Huffington Post calls it “a wonder food”; and the New Scientist calls it “a wonder food.” The New Zealand Herald asked in a recent news headline, “Is this the new wonder food?” Yes. Yes, it is.
Since a single tree yields 450 pounds of fruit a year, some say breadfruit can feed the world; others see fermented breadfruit flour as a gluten-free alternative to ordinary flour. Medical researchers are intrigued by “its potential chemopreventive abilities,” which is to say that breadfruit reduces inflammation in mice. The breadfruit tree produces a sticky substance that can be used as caulk or glue. Its wood is relatively immune to termites. Burning breadfruit leaves creates an ideal mosquito repellant.
The USDA has no data on breadfruit. There’s no need for it. But in Hana, Maui, where Cole tends 120 varieties of breadfruit trees from thirty-one Pacific islands, genetic diversity is carefully documented and nurtured on centuries-old verdant groves. Cole, along with several other local breadfruit farmers, sells fruit to nearby restaurants and hotels, and to a pie company. Two of his more interesting trading partners are his mechanic, who fixes Cole’s tractors in exchange for breadfruit, and a local “artisan pig farmer” who feeds blemished breadfruit to his swine. (“I need to get him a tree,” Cole reminded himself as we talked.)
But the ambition here goes well beyond neighborly exchange. Cole envisions breadfruit becoming a more sustainable version of corn, soy, wheat, or rice. By his account, breadfruit is an eco-friendly feedstock—fuel for the industrial food system, where it could help with reforestation, feeding animals and humans alike without losing its character to genetic modification or trashing the planet. Considering the prospect of this transition, Cole said, “It’s pretty awesome, actually.”
The breadfruit went global during that extended bio-prospecting carnival known as colonization, when imperial regimes, unburdened by the fear of “invasive species”—or much of anything, for that matter—realized that what God had sown on alien soil was more valuable than what was cached beneath it.
Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks, the preeminent English naturalist, initiated the breadfruit’s jagged path across the globe. It’s native to South Pacific islands ranging from Papua New Guinea to Western Micronesia; Banks first encountered it in Tahiti in 1769, where it must have been hard to miss. Tahitians had devised an idiosyncratic preservation technique: they loaded the breadfruit in woven bags, soaked them in the ocean, and stomped on them for hours in the crashing surf. Chiefs wore elaborate robes woven from breadfruit fiber—they called the cloth “tapa.” Islanders peeled breadfruit with seashells and wrapped them in banana leaves.
Upon his return to London, Banks raved about breadfruit to King George III, who was otherwise occupied with keeping his North American colonies in the fold of empire. It wasn’t until Banks promoted the breadfruit as an ideal source of cheap starch for English-owned slaves on West Indian sugar plantations that the King pricked up his ears, snapped his fingers, and summoned an explorer.
The gig went to Captain William Bligh—a.k.a. Breadfruit Bligh, who in 1787 sailed the H.M.S. Bounty to Tahiti, where he and his crew sowed and harvested and stowed 1015 breadfruit saplings to ship to the West Indies. A few days into the journey, a mutiny—the famous Mutiny on the Bounty—occurred. The mutineers had taken up with Tahitian women and wanted to go back, go native, and start a utopian community, all of which they did. Bligh may also have treated them like total shit. He was set adrift on the Bounty's longboat with eighteen other men. (Later, he bitterly recalled how the mutineers “laughed at the helpless situation of the boat.”) Lacking a compass, and quite pissed, he and his crew of outcasts raged across the ocean, covering five thousand kilometers in forty-one days to disembark on the Dutch island of Timor, where they were rescued.
Two years later, undeterred, Bligh bivouacked to Tahiti, secured two thousand fresh saplings, and carried them without incident to Jamaica and St. Vincent. The fruit prospered, due in large part to native bats, whose rank poop spread breadfruit seed better than the gentle Caribbean breeze ever could. By 1797, the head of the St. Vincent Botanic Garden could write that “the breadfruit thrives (if possible) better than in its native soil.” The slaves, for their part, wanted nothing to do with any this botanical chest-thumping. They wouldn’t touch the stuff.
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In time, others did. Today, breadfruit is culinary clay in the hands of a diaspora of chefs. Hawaiians call it ulu, Nigerians call it ukwa, Mexicans call it fruta de pan, and Papua New Guineans call it kapiak. Indians make breadfruit curry and breadfruit chips. Rastafarians make a “rundung” stew with breadfruit. Mexicans refry breadfruit the way they refry beans. In Trinidad, they make a breadfruit pumpkin soup. In Tobago, they love breadfruit pie. The Ministry of Agriculture in Kingston, Jamaica, has published recipes for breadfruit smoothies and deep-fried breadfruit croquettes on its website. The croquettes look particularly delicious.
Still, Americans have always kept their distance from the crop. Melville, for his part, liked how the tree looked. In Typee, he called it “a grand and towering object” comparable in stature to New England’s “patriarchal elm.” Its leaves were “cut and scalloped as fantastically as those of a lady’s lace collar.”
But its taste is a different thing. In 1913 all The Christian Science Monitor could offer was that the breadfruit was “palatable.” Over the century, public opinion downgraded the fruit from “palatable” to, as the Wall Street Journal recently put it, “all but inedible.” Epicurious, a popular cooking website, has recipes for “fruit bread” but not breadfruit. When a D.C.-based Smithsonian reporter was assigned to write about cooking with breadfruit, she came up empty. “You want fruit or bread?” the owner of an ethnic foods store asked her. If you consult WikiAnswers (and, really, don’t) about where to buy breadfruit, it says, “Not sure if they sell it in the U.S.” When I called my Whole Foods store in Austin to ask where I might find some breadfruit, the first word out of the produce guy’s mouth was “whoa!”
For a country that’s willing to eat just about anything anyone shoves down its national gullet, this is a curiously elusive relationship to have with a high-yielding fruit whose taste, palatable or not, is about as threatening as baby food. It’s hard to say why Americans shun breadfruit. Cole mentions that it “does not have a great shelf life.” Producers of animal feed—those who determine much of what’s grown and eaten in the United States (and elsewhere)—may be too addicted to the higher crude protein contents of corn and soy to explore the environmental benefits of breadfruit feed. And the breadfruit may also lack the potential to yield a ubiquitous byproduct—such as high-fructose corn syrup—to justify its mass production.
But my hunch is that the American objection is primarily aesthetic. A picked breadfruit looks like a Nerf ball with a stick in it. When you bite into the flesh, there’s no juice. The fruit’s exterior resembles really bad acne. Neither Georgia O’Keefe nor any of the Dutch masters ever eroticized the breadfruit. The American palate is remarkably tolerant, but it has its standards: our food has to pack a flavorful punch, or evoke grandma’s kitchen, or at least display a modicum of healthful sex appeal. Breadfruit does none of the above.
That’s for the best, though. Consider the more common fruits and vegetables broadcast across the earth after European colonization. More often than not, their biodiversity has been hijacked by conventional agriculture, locked in a genetic straitjacket, and defended with poisons ranging from arsenic to DDT. Corn, bananas, wheat: to mass commercialize a crop is to create an army of cloned plants marching in lockstep against microscopic forces ready to level them in one fell swoop. Maybe it’s time for the Breadfruit Institute to stage its own mutiny and keep the breadfruit safe at home, secure in ancient tropical groves, feeding pigs and filling pies. We here on the mainland won’t miss a thing.
James McWilliams is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He teaches at Texas State University and is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.