Canto CCCLIV: …Is Another Person’s Ñangapirí


Or: One Person's Surinam Cherry…

June 01, 2024

Gentle cabrones:

It must’ve been 12 years ago — had to have been, since that’s when we bought our house.

I definitely remember the spot: Laguna Hills Nursery. Which is now in SanTana. But when I bought our Surinam cherry tree, it was at the Orange International Farmer’s Market.

Incredible nursery. Right now, it’s packed with tomatoes and peppers and herbs, rare and not. Actually need to go there today to buy fertilizer for my trees and plant another one. Back then, it set up shop at the Orange International Farmer’s Market because it had no brick-and-mortar. Back then, the market was smaller, not the behemoth it is today.

My honey and I were in the market for a rare fruit tree to complement our apricot, peach, and pomegranate trees we had planted. I have no idea how we settled on the Surinam cherry tree of all of Laguna Hills Nursery’s options, because we didn’t want to go THAT rare.

What’s a Surinam cherry? I Googled it, of course, and I think that initial tree might’ve had some fruits on it. A squished sphere with a huge pit. About the circumference of the top of your thumb down to the end of the nail. Not much flesh. The first time I ate it, I thought the skin was too waxy.

It’s never grown taller than about my shoulders. Really, more like a spindly shrub. But it’s outlasted the apricot, peach and pomegranate trees.

And, oh, does it give.

I’ve grown to enjoy Surinam cherries. Simultaneously sweeter and tarter than a cherry, I no longer taste the waxiness I initially did. The huge pit still bugs me, but what are you going to do? It gives twice a year, like our kumquat, and it gives so much so fast that I end up filling a quart bag of it, then take them out throughout the year to eat.

But I don’t look forward to the harvest like, say, our Indio mandarinquat or our white mulberry tree. They’re just…there. I let too many fall to the ground, honestly.

One year, I posted a photo of a bowlful of them to Instagram. People asked what they were, thought they were cool, and other usual chatter. But then I got a text from my friend.

“You have ñangapirí?!”

Um, woozle-wozzle?

The first batch this year

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Eugenia uniflora is native to the tropical parts of the Atlantic side of South America. It goes by different names depending on what country you’re in. In Brazil, it’s pitanga. In Hawaii, it’s known as pumpkin cherry because of its lobes. In Australia, the Cayenne cherry. Monkimonki kersie in Surinam.

But in Argentina and Paraguay, Surinam cherries are known as ñangapirí. Guarani.

Which my friend is.

I could sense the emotion in her texts as she wrote about how seeing ñangapirí brought back beautiful memories of growing up in South America. She hadn’t tasted them in decades…but why were they called Surinam cherries?

Good question.

She was far away from our old stomping grounds, but I promised her that I would get her some ñangapirí the next time we saw each other. That was in 2019, when I was on assignment…somewhere, but made sure to make time for her with a bag of her favorite fruit.

My friend is a chingona, a legend in her profession for her work and uncompromising vision and ethics. But when I visited her office and she showed me around, she radiated with the joy of someone reunited with a long-lost toy. She offered them to people, who had no idea what ñangapirí was and thus declined. More for her.

She shoveled them in her mouth, then realized she had to make them last. She thanked me again and again and again.

We all have our Proustian moments, our beloved foods that evoke emotions no one else can feel. Hers is among the most memorable I’ve seen. I never saw someone so happy to eat something. It was profound. To me, Surinam cherries were something I grew and ate and took for even less than granted.

To my friend, it was LYFE itself.

About two years later, she and her partner came down to their former SoCal stomping grounds and we met up. I gave her a ñangapirí sapling that I grew from a pit that had fallen under the shade of its mother and had sprouted. She thanked me again, and said she would try to grow it in the harsh of where they now stayed.

The sapling didn’t make it.

My friend lives even farther away than ever, and doesn’t really return home to SoCal because it’s not home anymore. I can only save fruit for so long before I have to do something with it, so I haven’t given her any ñangapirí in years. But every year my Surinam cherry tree fruits, I collect them and hope I can see my friend again sooner rather than later.

This summer might be it. Ñangapirís spring eternal.


Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:

Ben Q., what happened to you?

IMAGE OF THE WEEK: AWESOME entomatadas, a severely underrated Mexican dish — folded tortillas stuffed with something then bathed in tomato sauce. These were from the ever-excellent Gloria’s Cocina Mexicana in Downer Downey

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “My songs spread slowly, like herpes, rather than Ebola” — Tom Lehrer

LISTENING: Veracruz (Instrumental),” Agustín Lara. My honey LOVES the songs of this ugliest — yet ultimately most smoldering — of Mexico’s bards, and so finds all sorts of great alternative versions to his standards that she plays at Alta Baja. I know this one best for its melancholy lyrics, but in this version, you get a bit more of a chipper rumba rhythm — and yet the sadness sways like un palmar…

READING: “Trump's deportation army”: Radley Balko hated killer cops before it was cool to do so, and might be one of the last real libertarians left, as this terrifying post shows.

BUY MY NEW CO-BOOK! People’s Guide to Orange County tells an alternative history of OC through the scholarship and reporting of myself, Elaine Lewinnek, and Thuy Vo Dang. There’ll be signings all year — in meanwhile, buy your copy TODAY. And, yes: I’ll autograph it!

Gustavo in the News

Letters to the Editor: The Thin Line Between Love and Loathe”: Non-fan mail for my “Ask a Californian” co-columna in Alta Journal.

AAPI Latinx population in the U.S. has doubled in the last two decades, new study finds”: An L.A. Times newsletter you should subscribe to plugs a columna of mine.

The real 3-star Michelin meal behind Ruth Reichl’s most decadent eating scene in ‘The Paris Novel’”: Another L.A. Times newsletter you should subscribe to plugs a columna of mine.

New COVID variants are spreading in California. How worried should we be?“: Yet another L.A. Times newsletter you should subscribe to plugs a columna of mine.

The hiking, camping, day trips and more that will make your SoCal summer one to remember“: Still yet another L.A. Times newsletter you should subscribe to plugs a columna of mine.

California's Tortilla Bill Threatens To Flatten Small Businesses”: Reason Magazine follows up on a columna of mine.

Gustavo Stories 

Grítale a Guti”: Latest edition of my Tuesday night IG Live free-for-all.

"Ask a Californian: Welcome to California”: My latest co-columna tackles summer secret hangouts, when one becomes a Californian, and the two San Fernando Valley accents — read it!

The Democratic civil war behind an Anaheim recall election”: My latest L.A. Times columna talks about Anaheim councilmember (and Anaheim High Class of ‘96 member) Natalie Rubalcava. KEY QUOTE: “That’s why, even though the city council is majority Latino, it’s about as wokoso as Winnie the Pooh.”

The very L.A. lessons at the heart of reality TV smash ‘Vanderpump Rules’”: My next latest L.A. Times columna finds me talking about my favorite talk television show. KEY QUOTE: ““Vanderpump Rules” stuck out above its fellow L.A.-based reality shows because it created its own version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County — a self-contained world that saw the rest of the universe through its limited prism.”

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