Of Mangoes and Bullshit

Perhaps the lesson is that when it comes to mangoes you can’t trust a magazine named for a peach.

Yesterday I came across this piece on mangoes on the Lucky Peach website by one Rupa Bhattacharya. It is described as follows: “An unprompted email from a father with a lot of good information”. Now, while I’m not generally well-versed in the genre of unprompted emails from fathers, this one actually contains quite a bit of bad information and so here I am. My apologies to Rupa Bhattacharya for callously critiquing her Father’s Day post and to her father, who seems like my kind of bullshitter, ranging in one brief email from exact mathematical analyses of the correct firmness at which Central and South American mangoes seem designed to be eaten (75% apparently) to description of soil types to origin stories for the names of mango varietals. As to whether any of this is actually correct is, as any good bullshitter will tell you, besides the point. The better question is why a serious (?) food magazine would publish such an anecdotal piece and slap a “Guides” tag on it. I’ll ask this question again at the bottom but first let’s get the good/bad information out of the way. 

A few pieces of evidence for the prosecution, in the order of their presentation in the piece:

  1. “The best edible kind are called something that sounds like “haah-poo-ss” which was anglicized into “Alphonso” by the Brits [ed: there is some credence to an alternate theory that these were named for Alfonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese capturer of Goa].”

The Pappy van Winkle of Mangoes. By Thamizhpparithi Maari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Pappy van Winkle of mangoes. (Image by Thamizhpparithi Maari via Wikimedia Commons)

First of all, the popular notion that Alphonso are the best kind of mangoes. This is the kind of belief that becomes self-sustaining the more people repeat it and it’s been repeated for a long time. It’s a bit like hearing over and over again that filet mignon is the tastiest cut of beef or that Pappy van Winkle is the best bourbon. The fact of the matter is hundreds of varieties of mangoes are grown all over India and every region has its own candidate for the best kind of mango: from the banganapalli to the himsagar to the chausa to the langda to the dussehri and far, far beyond there are many claimants to this throne; the Alphonso merely has the best p.r team and consequently the highest prices (this also results I’m sure in the export of chemically ripened Alphonsos that can be sold at high prices to people who read Lucky Peach). “Good information” about mangoes should dispel this blinkered nonsense not perpetuate it.

Also, the editorial aside about the “alternate theory” of the origin of the Alphonso name is funny because that “alternate theory” is actually the prevailing one: the Alphonso name comes from the name of the Portuguese general. The local name is indeed haapus but if there is any relationship between the two it seems more likely that Alphonso would have been corrupted into haapus than the other way around. At any rate “the Brits” had nothing to do with it.

2. “Similarly, eastern India and Bangladesh bordering the Bay of Bengal also produce good mangoes but because the terrain there is alluvial with more water content, the mangoes tend to be better for juice; they are less firm inside and a bit more fibrous.”

These are not mango trees.

These are not mango trees.

Doesn’t this sound convincing? Alluvial terrain with more water content, mangoes that “tend to be better for juice”—this gent must know what he’s talking about. Alas, it’s bullshit. Some of the most prized mangoes come from eastern India. The himsagar, which both Bengal and Orissa lay claim to, is considered one of the greatest of all mangoes and you’ll find far more rhapsodizing about it and about the Malda mango of Bengal and Bihar, and many other eastern Indian varietals than you will find fibrous flesh in them; not to mention that many varietals such as the great langda (more on this below) that don’t originate in eastern India are grown there. And while all kinds of mangoes can be and are made into juice there is nothing especially juice-worthy about mangoes grown in eastern India; and, for that matter, you’ll find fibrous mangoes grown all over India.

3. Then we come to an entire paragraph of crap on the langda, a great mango that deserves better.

First, “[B]y far the juiciest variety of mangoes is called “langra” or “langda””. Again, the langda is indeed a juicy mango as most mangoes are; but it is certainly not the juiciest mango by even a little distance and nor is it generally eaten in the way described: “by digitally softening the inside while the peel is still on and then “uncapping it” at the top, leaving the rest of the peel undisturbed”. This description suggests to me that he has confused it with the dussehri, which is indeed very juicy and which is usually enjoyed by more or less squeezing the juicy flesh into one’s mouth. The value of the pronouncements we are given in the piece as a whole, by the by, can perhaps be gauged by the aside in the langda paragraph on “better quality Indian rice pudding” which is said to contain condensed milk…

Oh yes, before we leave the langda, there’s another dubious origin story here: the langda, we are told, may be named for Timur or Tamerlane (“langda/langra” means lame in Hindi/Hindustani). Hmm I guess this might be possible—though I’ve not been able to track down any references to it; I did see repeated over and over again though in the process the more likely apocryphal origin story that the farmer who developed this varietal was lame. Maybe it was “the Brits” who fudged this too?

This is an Ataulfo---a Mexican cultivar. A good Ataulfo is a pretty good mango.

This is an Ataulfo—a Mexican cultivar. A good Ataulfo is a pretty good mango.

4. “The better grade of Kent mangoes are decent proxies for the Alphonso mangoes, but they tend to be bigger and a touch less sweet.”

I’m not a member of the cult of the Alphonso but this is an insult to the Alphonso. But that’s not why I bring this sentence up. I bring it up to salute the author who is truly a master of weasel words designed to indicate expertise without actually claiming it: “tend to”, “a touch less sweet”. You, sir, are a master!

5. “The “Tommy Atkins” kind of mangoes that you get in grocery stores are far inferior and the less said about them, the better.”

Actually, this isn’t crap; it’s true.


Anyway, even though I’ve gone on at some length above, my real point here is not to substitute my own dubious authority for that of this anonymous father. Please note that I am no authority on mangoes either. But then I wouldn’t expect a serious food magazine to run my personal preferences, theories and alternate histories as “good information”. As charming as the notion is of someone’s parent emailing them out of the blue with a mini-lecture on mangoes (or any other fruit or vegetable), someone should be checking whether that lecture actually holds up to any kind of scrutiny.

Here was an opportunity, I’d say, for a piece that goes over the place that food has in the transmission of identity among immigrant communities—the desire to connect your children who have grown up or are growing up eating fruits grown in very different climates to the ones you knew as a child, both literally and metonymically, is something that resonates very strongly with me; the “truth” of the stories we tell to do this kind of thing has only incidentally to do with fact. An interesting piece on this sort of a thing might also thus critique the notion that the content of the stories that perform this function is necessarily or inherently accurate (the “homes” that older immigrants remember are usually imagined, if not imaginary). Instead, this email is described as “good information” and re-printed more or less as is in a magazine that otherwise does not seem to be in the business of peddling unsubstantiated claims (I have to confess I am not a regular reader of Lucky Peach—maybe this mango piece is representative).

Or maybe for Lucky Peach to be “an Indian dad” is sufficient to be an authority on Indian food. If so, I’m an Indian dad and I’m full of stories that could be true—when do I get paid?

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