durian
My durian vendor’s wares in Chinatown.

In nature, when a plant or fruit has a hard shell, is sharp to the touch, weighs the same as a rock its size, smells rotten, activates our gag reflex, and maybe even makes us dry-heave, our instincts tell us not to eat it.

So against all odds in the natural order of things — it would seem — durian is a delicacy in much of southeast Asia. I mean no offense. I used to work with international students entering college in the US, and some kids from southeast Asia were leery of cheese at first. Totally fair. I hear Americans smell like butter all the time, and I bet we do. We in the west just aren’t used to durian, and only recently has it been available in the US, for the most curious of eaters to seek out. And if we’re lucky, we live in New York and can actually find it.

Earlier this year, my brother and sister-in-law tried the durian with extended family who live in Singapore. This fall, he texted me from a gourmet grocery store in northern Virginia asking–joking, he claims–if he should pick up a durian for Thanksgiving, when my entire family would be home. The price per pound would cost him $30 for something he was fairly certain would repulse us, so he didn’t buy.

Of course, New York City has the second most populated Chinatown in America after San Francisco, but arguably the densest. It’s estimated that 90,000-100,000 Chinese-Americans live in an area no larger than a square mile. Wares have been imported and exported for more than a century, though given the high cost of rent for textile factories in the Lower East Side, goods are mostly imported today. Durian among them.

I happened to be in the Lower East Side the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, and I stopped at the first of three produce vendors I would come across in a short time selling durians. The per-pound price was reasonable, and I thought the fruit smelled almost fragrant. It only set me back $7.50. I phoned my brother and he didn’t believe that what I had purchased was a durian, if it was so inexpensive the smell of it didn’t have me retching on the Bowery.

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The durian. Our durian.

But oh, it was very real. Once he cracked the little terror open with a meat cleaver, and our kitchen was overtaken by a pungent oniony stench that an hour of open windows and ceiling fans would not alleviate, my instincts made their opinion known. I gagged and made a face no one should ever have to see.

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The precursor to the precursor to the face I made.

My sassy mom was the first to taste it and my brother went second. I was third, then my sister and dad followed. None of us liked it–far from it–but we all went back for seconds out of respect for the delicacy and to see if the experience might improve. It actually did. I plugged my nose and tasted, and I could appreciate the fruit’s sweetness, like a passionfruit and cantaloupe, which made the texture seem more like that of an overripe mango than thick mud. And later in the afternoon, I would bring a taste in a plastic baggy to the guy I’m dating, and he didn’t mind it. Good guy.

If, like in Asia, the durian were indigenous to the mid-Atlantic states and I had grown up around it, I’m sure I would appreciate it in the way I appreciate the bitterer varieties of heritage apples grown in Virginia. I don’t have to like them to be glad that rare breeds of fruits are being kept alive.

But still, the smell. It could make a small child cry.

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The durian’s soft, yellow, unsettling flesh.

All this time, my parents’ and my brother’s dogs seemed excited by our commotion, but we started to wonder if it was the durian’s smell they were responding to.

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Norman the Norwich, definitely curious.

We set small tastes of the fruit in a pie dish for the boys, Norman and Rudy, and we watched as they devoured it, Rudy in particular. With that, I knew exactly what I thought of the durian.

Nature doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should we.

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Rudy the beagle/bassett’s found his new favorite.

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