Several years ago, when I was on icy, unfamiliar ground (if you must know, it happened in Upstate New York, in the hills, near a resort called Mohonk, where I’d just given a speech about my work) I slipped and fell, breaking my right shoulder. One result was that, although I recovered pretty well, I’m right-handed, but now can’t reach quite as far with my right arm as I can with my left. Among other consequences, this limits my freehand fruit-picking, though of course, there are all kinds of tools, which I never had to use before.
But a line by Robert Browning (probably the line most remembered from a long poem called “Andrea Del Sarto”) now somehow has a more personal meaning for me:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s a Heaven for?”
The matter of reaching for fruit does indeed take us back almost to Heaven, at least to the Garden of Eden. Most people who are at all familiar with the Biblical story of Adam and Eve know that all our troubles can be traced to a certain forbidden fruit which Eve was first tempted to eat, and she then induced Adam to join her, both thereby defying God’s will. That fruit is generally thought to have been an apple, but the “Book of Genesis,” in which this account appears, makes no such specification. For all we know, it might have been a peach or a plum.
This did not stop somebody from labeling the prominence in our neck the “Adam’s Apple,” on the theory that a piece of that forbidden fruit was embedded in Adam’s throat — a somewhat sexist rationale, since Eve was equally, if not more, guilty — but anatomically justifiable, since this bump tends to be much more prominent in men than in women.
But when it comes to reaching for fruit, surely top honors must go to that ancient Greek storyteller Aesop, whose tales we might quite literally describe as “fabulous.” Many of us know his fable about the fox who sees a very tempting cluster of grapes hanging from a vine. He tries again and again to reach it — but this is not the story whose moral urges, “If at first you don’t succeed . . .” No, the fox is out of luck, and finally slinks off, muttering to himself the best consolation he can think of: “Well, they were probably sour anyway.” To him, and Aesop, we therefore owe the expression “sour grapes,” connoting a poor loser.
But our culture has much more pleasant associations with fruit, particularly fruit pies. Everybody knows the expression “As American as apple pie,” which somehow, as recently as World War II, got wrapped up with “Mom,” giving us an unbeatable combination of symbols for Americans to fight for in any future conflict.
Unfortunately, our expression “apple-pie order,” meaning tidy and well-ordered, (which, when you come to think of it, is not particularly an American characteristic) apparently had nothing to do with apple pies, but originated from a misunderstanding of a French expression meaning “neatly folded.”
And we mustn’t forget the cherry — first endeared to us by Parson Weems’ cherry tree fable about the young George Washington, who “could not tell a lie.” Then it became the ultimate test of a good wife, with the song whose chorus asks of a prospective mate:
“Can she bake a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”
Billy assures us that, despite her extreme youth (which is stressed in every response), she has amazing culinary skills:
“She can bake a cherry pie quick’s a cat can wink his eye —
(She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.)”
Cherry pies may be quite common — but, if you live in my neck of the woods, don’t look for a raisin pie. My friend Sol often reminisced about his mom’s wonderful raisin pies, and I thought it would be fun to surprise him with one. But the surprise was mine, when I could find no local bakery, or any other possible source, which made or sold such a thing. I finally appealed online and had to have one privately made.
But, if I may conclude with Billy Boy, you may be interested to know that, in the song’s finale, he’s asked exactly how old his cherry-pie sweetheart is, to which he candidly replies:
“Three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven –
She’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.”