This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Mango Mania: How the American Mango Lost its Flavor—and How it Might Just Get it Back, first released on September 11, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
MYLES KARP: I imagine I had a pretty similar mango-related upbringing to most people in the U.S.. I thought that they were good. I thought that the mangoes I was eating were basically what mangoes were.
NICOLA TWILLEY: This is Myles Karp. He’s a food journalist and, a few years ago, he had a big mango breakthrough. And he realized: American mangoes suck. The generic American supermarket mango—it is quite frankly, a pitiful thing.
KARP: It’s almost crunchy. Like, a mango should not be crunchy. It’s pretty bland. It’s pretty fibrous. It’s not soft, and it’s just generally not good.
CYNTHIA GRABER: This does not sound delicious at all. But I’ve heard about mangoes that can make your heart sing. Sing all about mangoes.
TWILLEY: Mango maniacs rave about mangoes. So where are they hiding all these magical aromatic, juicy, almost custardy mangoes of legend?
GRABER: And why can’t I buy them at the store? I, in case you’ve stumbled upon this by accident—I’m Cynthia Graber, and you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, Cynthia and I are going on a mango quest. It involves a dentist in New Jersey, a Colombian horticulturalist in Florida, and mango orgies in India. So buckle up!
GRABER: Myles Karp thought American mangoes were, well, mangoes. He thought that was what mangoes were supposed to taste like.
TWILLEY: And then he went to study in London for a year.
KARP: I went to Harrods in London—the department store. Like, really luxury expensive department store. They have a little fruit stand there and they had an Alphonso mango, which I had heard of but I had never tried before. And I bought it. I’m sure it was really expensive and it was just the most amazing thing I had ever eaten. That was like the most exciting day of my life.
GRABER: I’m not sure just what this says about Myles’s life to that point but, so, what exactly was this Alphonso mango like?
KARP: This one had no fiber so it was just a uniform creamy texture. The skin is yellow. The inside I’ve heard described as saffron—but it’s more like marigold, like a very deep orange-ish yellow.
TWILLEY: OK, so it’s yellow, it’s creamy… but come on Myles! What I care about is, what does it taste like?
KARP: It tastes a lot like blackcurrant or I guess really like blackcurrant-flavored candy. Caramel. I mean those two things, plus mango. So it’s like much more mango-ey than any other mango that I’ve ever had.
GRABER: The Alphonso mango Myles purchased in London was not actually from London.
TWILLEY: The UK has many great fruit-growing regions but yes, sadly, none of them are really suitable for mangoes.
GRABER: This one grew in Western India, and Alphonso mangoes have been growing in the region for probably 500 years.
KARP: There are suggestions that the Alphonso is named after Alphonso de Albuquerque, who’s a Portuguese general who helped colonize India. So the Portuguese had some holdings in western India and they actually came to India and started grafting.
TWILLEY: Grafting means that you can grow the same mango again and again, rather than just a random seedling. It’s a technique that means you can clone particularly delicious varieties. Like the Alphonso.
GRABER: The Portuguese may have selected for the Alphonso, but Indians had domesticated mangoes thousands of years earlier.
SOHAIL HASHMI: If I am going to identify India with one fruit, it is the mango.
TWILLEY: This is Sohail Hashmi
HASHMI: I make documentary films. I conduct heritage walks in Delhi and I write about Delhi.
GRABER: And Sohail is a mango obsessive.
TWILLEY: We asked him to describe his relationship with mangoes. And he told us that sadly he can’t eat mangoes right now, because he’s been diagnosed with high blood sugar.
HASHMI: But before that I had an extremely extremely active relationship with mangoes. My idea was to demolish as many of them as I could at one sitting.
TWILLEY: This enthusiastic relationship is something Sohail has in common with many of his fellow Indians. In fact, the national passion for mangoes goes deep in Indian history and culture. There are references to mangoes in Hindu scriptures.
GRABER: The story goes that the Buddha was given a grove of shady mangoes by a follower, to rest beneath.
TWILLEY: Mangoes were exchanged between Indian princes as diplomatic gifts. The famous Mughal Emperor Akbar supposedly had an orchard of 100,000 mango trees.
HASHMI: There are references to the mango, say, in the Kamasutra.
GRABER: A young man is courting a lady, and they arrange a rendez-vous…
TWILLEY: And as he waits for his beloved to come…
HASHMI: He has to prepare a proper welcome for her. Among the things that he was expected to keep ready for the lady was ripe sweet mangoes.
GRABER: Sounds tempting!
TWILLEY: But, Cynthia, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t take my knickers off for an American supermarket mango.
GRABER: But apparently Indian mangoes are in another class entirely. And you can find mangoes throughout Indian culture.
HASHMI: There is so much in our classical music. The shape of the mango has been used in embroidery and in weaving and in carving. And the paisley that you see in embroidery all over Europe is the shape of the mango,
TWILLEY: Scholars actually debate whether the paisley shape originates from a mango or from other fruits and leaves, but who cares? Sohail, like many, many of his fellow Indians, is convinced that everything good in life is to do with mangoes.
HASHMI: Mango is so deeply ingrained in Indian culture of food and of music and of poetry and in embroidery, in carving, that it is the fruit of India.
GRABER: So it’s woven throughout culture, and it’s also woven right into the fabric of people’s lives.
RHITU CHATTERJEE: Mangoes are what made my childhood summers sing despite the heat. So I grew up in India—I was born in India and I grew up there. and mangoes are essentially what I waited for every year.
TWILLEY: This is Rhitu Chatterjee. She’s a reporter at NPR.
CHATTERJEE: So, for me, summers meant it was pretty much all I ate.
GRABER: Rhitu’s not the only one who couldn’t wait for mango season. All of India goes mango crazy.
KARP: When the season arrives, which is like late spring or early summer, it’s like an event. All the newspapers cover it. There are festivals.
TWILLEY: When Sohail sees the news that the mangoes are ready, he hires a bus.
HASHMI: What I do, once in a year, I take bus loads of people 50 kilometers out of Delhi to spend one day in mango orchards.
GRABER: There are orchards all along the roads there. Miles and miles of orchards, as far as you can see.
HASHMI: So that is where we actually have a mango orgy.
TWILLEY: Before the trip, Sohail and his friends make special extra-spicy curries that go with the mangoes. And they bring those along into the mango orchard for their orgy.
HASHMI: You eat that. And then you attack the mangoes.
GRABER: And then you do it all again.
HASHMI: You eat stuff, then you eat mangoes, then you eat some more stuff, then eat more mangoes. When can’t look at mangoes you lie down under the shade of the mango tree. And when you are ready to eat more, there are more mangoes.
TWILLEY: So that’s obviously one way to eat mangoes—at a mango orgy. But Indians also cook with mangoes.
HASHMI: So the range of food in which mango goes in is virtually countless.
GRABER: You don’t even have to wait for the ripe mangoes to get started on your mango feasting. Rhitu told us that one of the first ways people eat mangoes in season is by turning green mangoes into a drink.
CHATTERJEE: You sort of roast the green mangoes over a flame. and then you just take out the soft green pulp and you mix it with water and sugar and some spices and salt. Then you stick it in the refrigerator and it becomes this wonderfully tangy, salty, sweet, spicy, cooling drink.
GRABER: Or you can cook green mangoes for dinner. Rhitu described a mango dal that she said is particular to her home state of West Bengal.
CHATTERJEE: So you take lentils—what we call masur dal or it’s the orange lentils. And you put take chunks of green mango and you cook the lentils with the mangoes.
TWILLEY: Just in case you are not already drooling, there’s more. There are mango chutneys, there’s powdered mango, which adds a sour note to lots of Indian dishes
GRABER: Once the mangoes are ripe, the dishes turn sweet. Rhitu told us that her family would cut up mangoes and bread and soak them in milk.
CHATTERJEE: It’s very unsophisticated but somehow very delicious, a favorite summer comfort food.
TWILLEY: In America we are clearly doing this mango thing all wrong. And from the sound of it, we’re really missing out.
GRABER: But Myles had bought an Indian mango in London, an Alphonso mango to be specific. And he had gotten a taste of what Nicky and I apparently have been missing our whole lives.
KARP: Everyone who’s tried one has just been like I had no idea mango could taste like this. What have I been doing?
TWILLEY: But a student cannot buy mangoes at Harrods every day. Alphonsos are available in London but they’re not cheap, and they’re not that easy to get a hold of. And then, even worse, when Myles got back to the U.S., he discovered he literally couldn’t buy an Alphonso mango at all.
KARP: Indian mangoes had been officially banned by the U.S. government. So, officially it was because of phytosanitary concerns. They were concerned about pests hitching rides on Indian mangoes and coming to do damage to American crops.
TWILLEY: Myles was pretty upset about this ban. But Indian expats—they were devastated.
KARP: A good Indian mango is just so delicious that not having it will make you very sad. So sometimes actually people would fly back to India for mango season if they were connoisseurs. Other times people would smuggle Indian mangoes. But for the most part Indian Americans in the U.S. just missed good mangoes.
GRABER: That was the situation.
KARP: Until a dentist who was born in Gujarat, a dentist named Bhaskar Savani, based in Pennsylvania, sort of took this on as his pet project.
GRABER: Bhaskar got involved in this because of his dad. His dad had joined the ranks of the mango smugglers, he was bringing some home from India for Bhaskar. And he got stopped by customs officers at JFK.
TWILLEY: And the customs officers were not feeling Bhaskar’s need for mangoes. They told Bhaskar’s dad to throw the mangoes out—he wasn’t allowed to bring them into the country.
KARP: And instead of throwing them away he sat there eating the mangoes, like eating as many mangoes as he possibly could so that they didn’t go to waste. And when he finally came out of the airport a few hours later—his son was worried that something had happened to him. He was covered in mango juice.
GRABER: After his dad and the accidental mango feast at JFK, Bhaskar started researching this ban and lobbying against it, and he got involved with the U.S.-India Business Council.
KARP: So at the time—this was in the early 2000s—George Bush and Manmohan Singh were in talks.
TWILLEY: These were big trade negotiations.
KARP: And so Bhaskar Savani, this dentist who loved mangoes so much, basically pushed the U.S.-India Business Council to include mangoes as part of these talks. And eventually George Bush was actually given an Alphonso mango to try during one of these summits. He apparently said this is a hell of a fruit. And then mangoes were on the table.
TWILLEY: Literally. But Dubya’s moment of mango appreciation was not enough on its own. Motorcycles to the rescue.
KARP: OK, so at the same time the U.S. was trying to get Harley-Davidson motorcycles into India. Those had been banned because they had too high emission levels. And so eventually it was decided that if India allowed Harley Davidsons in then the U.S. would allow Indian mangoes in.
GRABER: I think we won out in this trade deal.
KARP: So in 2007, finally, the first shipment, which was spearheaded by this dentist, Dr. Savani, arrived at JFK Airport and it was met with a lot of fanfare. There was a lot of promise back then. When this ban was lifted, people were hopeful. People expected that Indian mangoes would be ubiquitous in the U.S. soon.
TWILLEY: But wait a minute. I don’t remember a big mango renaissance starting in 2007.
GRABER: And if there’s one thing you and I would have noticed, it would have been a mango renaissance.
TWILLEY: So what went wrong? We have the sad story, plus the less sad news about where you can get your hands on these delightful fruits yourself
TWILLEY: So that mango renaissance everyone was hoping for?
KARP: It just didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen for a number of reasons.
GRABER: The first problem? Mumbai is really far away from New York City.
TWILLEY: Like, 9000 miles. Which is 22 days on a container ship.
KARP: And the mango is not really the hardiest fruit. It’s pretty perishable, as far as fruits go. So it has to be flown. It cannot be shipped. And flying a fruit is really expensive. Right now, there’s not enough demand to create economy of scale.
GRABER: And then there’s the issue of getting rid of pests. Mangoes imported into the U.S. have to be irradiated in India—it’s part of a particular USDA protocol. There are only two facilities in all of India where that can happen.
KARP: A USDA inspector has to be there. They can only work six to eight hours every day. Dr. Savani was telling me that until recently he was responsible for putting the USDA inspector up in a hotel and paying for their transportation.
TWILLEY: And so all these obstacles and bottlenecks—they all add up to one thing: very, very expensive mangoes.
KARP: There’s an Amazon listing selling Alphonso mangoes for one hundred sixty dollars for a box of six mangoes.
GRABER: That’s more than 26 dollars for each mango. Each one.
KARP: So you can get lucky and find them at an Indian grocery store. You can order them through one of these importers online. Like Bhaskar. There are other ones too. Mangozz. M-A-N-G-O-Z-Z dot com.
TWILLEY: Getting lucky in this instance might mean getting a box for 70 bucks. That translates to the bargain basement price of nearly 12 dollars a mango.
KARP: And so people don’t really embrace fruit at these prices.
TWILLEY: Basically, all that changed is that now the mango situation in the US is like the mango situation where I grew up, in England. You can get Alphonsos, yes, but they’re air-freighted in, in limited quantities, so they’re pretty expensive and hard to find—they’re definitely a special treat that you have to seek out, rather than an everyday fruit you can pick up at the store. I’d never had one.
GRABER: But they do sound worth seeking out—I’m tempted to stalk my local Indian grocery store during mango season to see if they get any in.
CHATTERJEE: I like Alphonsos all right but I just don’t think they’re the best.
GRABER: Wait, what?
TWILLEY: What do you mean Alphonso is not the best?
HASHMI: Honestly speaking—and this I am prepared to say anywhere: Alphonso is more a marketing success than anything else. It is a good mango but if I was to choose from mangoes which I consider good, Alphonso will not be in it.
TWILLEY: Yep, it’s true. Alphonso gets all the hype, but it turns out when you actually ask an Indian person what their favorite mango is, you rarely hear the same thing twice. There are Indians who are crazy for Alphonsos—like Bhaskar the dentist, or even my dad’s first boss, who used to send him to Heathrow airport to pick up the first box of the season.
GRABER: But Rhitu and Sohail are both tepid about Alphonsos. There are other varieties that generate far more passion.
CHATTERJEE: So my favorite variety, which is called Himsagar—pretty big. Bigger than the varieties of mangoes you find here. And it’s a very solid and sweet variety. Not as fibrous, not as juicy as other varieties that come out later in the season.
GRABER: Yet another mango that sounds incredible that I’ve never been able to get my hands on.
TWILLEY: The one thing Indian mango lovers do agree on is that part of the pleasure of mango season is the flow—you fall in love with lots of mango varieties, one after the other.
CHATTERJEE: So May through early June, you would eat the Himsagar. Then from somewhere around the end of May, early June ,you start having another variety, say like the Dasheri. And then you move on to later in June and July, you have other varieties come in. So you only have a few weeks to have each variety of mango.
GRABER: And it’s not that Rhitu and Sohail are just waiting for the next one to show up so they can keep eating the same mango flavors—actually all the mangoes are really different. Which is part of the fun.
HASHMI: There are mangoes that are very sweet. There are mangoes that are sweet with a touch of sourness. There are mangoes where they are very fleshy and there are mangoes that do not have that much flesh but sucking the bone gives you a lot of syrup. So it is difficult to say that this mango or that mango. There are people who like Tchaikovsky and there are people who can’t stand Tchaikovsky. You know? There are people who prefer Handel over Wagner and there are those who can’t stand Wagner.
TWILLEY: OK, so what Rhitu and Sohail are basically saying is that the Indian mango season is like a symphony. And, by contrast, the American mango scene—it’s more like a tin whistle.
GRABER: So now I understand what had always kind of confused me, I had heard Indian mangoes were dreamy, but I had no idea why I couldn’t find them easily in America. Now I know.
TWILLEY: But what I still don’t understand is where we are getting our mangoes from, and, why don’t they taste good.
GRABER: This is like an Aesop’s fable: The tale of how our mangoes lost their flavor. It all goes back to our good friend David Fairchild.
TWILLEY: If you haven’t already listened to our episode all about him, you should.
GRABER: You might remember from that episode that in the late 1800s, he paid Indian children to suck the flesh off mangoes so he could send the seeds back to the U.S.. We got Indian mangoes here! So then what happened?
TWILLEY: Fairchild sent them to DC, and the DC folks decided that Florida was the best place to try to grow this fabulous new fruit.
GRABER: That was a long boat trip from India to DC, and then a trip to Florida, and then nobody in Florida knew how to grow mangoes. So as it happens, only one from that original batch of seeds survived.
KARP: But that just happened to be like the strongest tree, not necessarily the tastiest one. Just the only one that survived.
TWILLEY: But that’s the mango that all the commercial American varieties are descended from—the ones you see in the store. It’s a genetic bottleneck.
GRABER: And there’s another thing that’s different about American mangoes, which leads me to my second Aesop’s fable: how the mango became red.
TWILLEY: In India, mangoes are yellow, orange, and green. But in my local supermarket, the mangoes are mostly red. Why?
GRABER: The story is that a couple named John and Florence Haden moved to Miami more than a century ago. And they planted a whole bunch of mangoes. All the trees were descended from that one hardy survivor from Fairchild’s day. John died, but Florence, she discovered a beautiful blushing red mango among their trees.
TWILLEY: She called this new mutation the Haden. And this Haden variety of mango took Florida by storm. Which created yet another genetic bottleneck. In fact, the most common mango in American stores today, the Tommy Atkins, is a direct descendant of the original Haden.
KARP: The guy who bred it, Tommy Atkins, entered it into some sort of like competition in Florida and they rejected it, saying that it didn’t taste good enough.
DAVID KUHN: So it’s red, and it has a long shelf life, and it ships well, and so that’s why in New York City most people hate mangoes because they spent four bucks and it was like cardboard and they said never again.
GRABER: David Kuhn is a mango geneticist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service near Miami. And, as David pointed out, Tommy Atkins ships well. This matters because we don’t get our mangoes from Florida.
KUHN: I mean India is—they have ninety five percent of the world’s production of mango but they hardly export at all because they eat them all.
KARP: They’re grown on a really small scale in the U.S.. For the most part they come from Latin America.
TWILLEY: Three-quarters of mangoes in U.S. stores come from Mexico. The rest come from Peru and Brazil. So we’re getting our mangoes from Latin America, which is not the mango’s native home. The varieties are not the greatest to begin with. But there’s another major reason that our mangoes taste like cardboard.
KUHN: Because of a particular seed weevil they have to be dipped in hot water for what seems to be an incredibly long period of time. I think it’s 65 degrees centigrade for at least 30 minutes. Yeah, so, they’re kind of boiled by the time they come out.
TWILLEY: Boiling a mango is really not a great idea in terms of flavor retention.
GRABER: I can’t imagine any fruit doing particularly well after sitting in hot water for 30 minutes. Thirty minutes of that should turn it into mush! What kind of fruit can survive that?
KUHN: There are some mangoes where the hot water treatment doesn’t really bother them that much. I mean nothing bothers Tommy Atkins.
TWILLEY: Probably because it started out tasting like cardboard.
GRABER: I do want to mention that you can find some halfway decent mangoes if you look for small yellow ones called champagne mangoes, or ataulfo mangoes. Some don’t have to be given the hot water treatment. They’re pretty tasty, too. And in stores near me, they’re imported from Mexico and Haiti.
KARP: I wouldn’t place an Ataulfo mango in the same universe of quality as an Alphonso. But it’s way better than a Tommy Atkins. And they are grabbing market share.
TWILLEY: Yay, we can get a slightly-better-than-crap mango in the shops.
GRABER: I would actually agree with Myles that it’s way better. But that said, I’m not writing poetry about it.
TWILLEY: Exactly. It’s not these sexy Indian mangoes that inspire passionate love in all who are lucky enough to experience them. Those are the ones I want. Is there really no way to get hold of those?
GRABER: Well, Nicky, there just might be one way that doesn’t involve us flying halfway across the globe.
NORIS LEDESMA: Are you ready to eat some mangoes? Because you are so lucky today, even though it is so late for mango season, I was able to get some mangoes for you this morning, so I was so excited about it.
GRABER: Noris Ledesma is the mango lady. And she is the key to our mango quest.
TWILLEY: A few weeks ago, we flew to Miami to do a live show at the Frost Museum of Science. Which was awesome. But the morning of the show, we drove a few miles south of town to visit the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
GRABER: Once again, this is the legacy of our friend David Fairchild. It’s a botanical garden that started from his collection. Today, the gardens have more than 6,000 different plant species. And Noris Ledesma is in charge of the tropical fruit trees—particularly their mango collection.
LEDESMA: I’m a simple girl from Colombia, from a village. I grew up with my grandmother.
TWILLEY: Noris didn’t start out knowing she was going to be a tropical fruit expert. All she knew was she didn’t want to work in an office and have to wear high heels every day.
LEDESMA: And when I decided to study, I knew that I didn’t want high shoes. I wanted to be comfortable. I like rubber boots.
GRABER: Noris is trained as a horticulturist and she gets to wear rubber boots and even a cowboy hat everyday. And when she came to work at Fairchild, she inherited the mango collection. But it also might have been fate.
LEDESMA: Mangoes is in my blood. It’s probably my second food after the bananas.
TWILLEY: Cynthia and I are on a quest for a better tasting mango. But it turns out there’s actually another big mystery in the mango world—one that Noris and David have been trying to figure out.
GRABER: No one knows exactly where the mango comes from. Obviously, if you ask an Indian, they will say the mango comes from India.
TWILLEY: But David’s a scientist, so he felt the need to fact check that.
GRABER: David’s spent the past two years devoted to creating a huge map of the mango genome. And based on his research, he has a different theory.
KUHN: It’s just my opinion, but I would say that Southeast Asia and other regions in there are probably the main source.
TWILLEY: Noris actually agrees. Her bet is that the mango’s original home is Borneo.
LEDESMA: I imagine that they jump first probably to the Philippines and they went to the south of India and also to Laos and Vietnam and Thailand. So they start disseminating these seeds and people start selecting mangoes that they like.
GRABER: Noris has been traveling all over the world. She’s a fruit hunter, just like David Fairchild was. And she’s collected hundreds of varieties for the Fairchild Garden. With hundreds of varieties of flavors.
TWILLEY: There’s a whole world—or at least a whole region of the world — full of mango flavors. We were already reeling when we heard Rhitu and Sohail describe the varieties of mango in India but Noris had laid out a table-ful of mangoes for us—thirty or more, from all over Southeast Asia.
TWILLEY: Cynthia, smell them.
GRABER: Ahh, this is what our friends have been talking about.
TWILLEY: Mmm hmm.
TWILLEY: We started by tasting the closest relative to wild mangoes.
TWILLEY: There’s almost like, like a petroleum or something.
GRABER: There there’s like a rich, like a roundness to it.
LEDESMA: Can you sense a little bit of onions and garlic on it.
GRABER: Yeah totally.
GRABER: Over the next hour, we had our own mango orgy. We ate mangoes from Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia and Myanmar and India and Sri Lanka.
TWILLEY: Noris tried to teach us correct mango tasting protocol.
LEDESMA: So you have to peel it a little bit, and then smell it first, and then you can eat it.
GRABER: We started off listening to her and trying it out—the peel has a particular smell, the parts near the stem taste a little different than the rest—but really, soon Nicky and I were just shoving pieces in our mouths.
GRABER: Yep, uh huh.
TWILLEY: So juicy, it’s dripping, and we’re covered and your microphone is going to be so sticky.
GRABER: Um, yes it is. I think I’m just floating in a mango cloud.
TWILLEY: If you, I’m biting down really like—I’m sucking the last little bits off the skin now and that—it tastes like, lime but not lime like ‘ooh,’ but lime like ‘mmm.’
TWILLEY: Not all the mangoes tasted like fruity heaven. Some of them had really unexpected flavors—onion and garlic and even blue cheese.
TWILLEY: The rind, it smells cheesy.
LEDESMA: It has already been studied, this mango. And it has cheese, actually blue cheese. In a pleasant way, it’s just combined with other flavors like the papaya like, you have a little bit of, no, a lot of mandarin.
GRABER: There were some savory notes, yes, which was a little surprising. But then there were other surprises awaiting us.
GRABER: Mmm, Oh my gosh, it tastes like a coconut!
TWILLEY: This tastes like a coconut. This is a coconut-mango hybrid!
GRABER: Oh my gosh, this is surprising.
TWILLEY: This is actually my new favorite mango. It’s from Myanmar and I can’t even really pronounce its name properly but I love it. It’s called the Schwe Hintha, or something like that anyway.
GRABER: I don’t have a favorite. That is definitely one of them, but there were like, five different ones I’m dying to try again. When we put them on the spot, Noris and David couldn’t choose their favorite, either.
LEDESMA: It depends on my mood, depends on the weather, depends on the occasion. There are some days you want to be sophisticated, when you want a mango that you don’t want to get messy. So it is an occasion for that and a kind of mango for that.
KUHN: Ahh, my feeling always has been that the best mango is the one you just harvested and you’re eating right that very minute.
GRABER: I may have not have harvested it myself, but I can agree that the best mango is an amazing one that was just picked and that I can’t stop eating. That’s my favorite.
TWILLEY: Fine, let’s not argue. I’m not going to fight about the best mango. The point is, we have now eaten truly amazing mangoes. And lots of them!
GRABER: We did! We succeeded in our quest! We ate genuinely mind-blowing mangoes!
TWILLEY: We now know what mangoes can and should be. But now I am back home in Los Angeles and the mango situation is just all the more disappointing, frankly.
GRABER: David and Noris both have plans to change that. Separately, they are each working on breeding the mango of the future.
TWILLEY: David is using his new gene map of the mango, which makes the whole process faster and cheaper.
GRABER: Usually it would take years to crossbreed mangoes and grow the trees and the fruit. But David is working on genetic markers for specific traits.
KUHN: We want to be able to screen at a very early time, so we want to associate traits to markers, then use those markers to screen, and we don’t want to pick the winners, we want to pick the losers and then we throw the losers away. So it cuts down on your evaluation costs. You only put things that are potentially going to be better out into the field.
TWILLEY: David and his colleague Barbie Freeman have been working on their mango of the future for a while now. What they’re looking for, though, is what the mango industry tells them it wants.
KUHN: OK, so commercially, it’s always fruit color.
GRABER: And in America right now the color both industry and consumers like is red.
KUHN: One thing that people are really interested in is dwarfing.
TWILLEY: Smaller trees means you can fit more in an orchard, and they’re easier to harvest.
KUHN: Reducing loss to disease is big. Finding cultivars that ship better. That would be great.
GRABER: Frankly, industry doesn’t seem all that interested in better flavor. But of course Barbie and David are certainly also interested in flavor. And they’ve developed a new mango at the research center that they say meets some of industries requirements and tastes great—they’re really excited about it.
BARBIE FREEMAN: This also a huge mango. It’s literally about—about a foot long at least. And the seed inside is extremely flat and it’s very smooth. There’s no fiber.
KUHN: You could eat this with a spoon. It’s amazing. Yeah, I’m crazy for this mango.
TWILLEY: A couple miles down the road, Noris has been working on a new mango of her own. She’s on the second generation of crosses. And she’s trying to create a mango that doesn’t need a cold snap to bloom, one that is hardier and more resistant to pests and disease—basically a mango that can stand up to climate change.
GRABER: But then she’s also trying to breed for something we didn’t expect—she wants to create a dark purple mango.
LEDESMA: I always thought that it doesn’t matter the color of the skin, they are all good. But the reality is then our farmers are losing a lot of money with the yellow-skinned mangoes. Because the market is looking for perfection. And the yellow-skinned mangoes can show better any scars and imperfection than they have, and the losses for the farmers is about 40 percent in yellow mangoes compared with the red mangoes skin. So now I’m more turn than create a mango than is purple.
TWILLEY: Purple is pretty—Americans love pretty fruit. And it hides dings better than yellow. And it has more built-in antioxidants too.
GRABER: Noris has dark purple mangoes from Malaysia, and she’s crossbreeding them with different varieties at the Fairchild Garden to try to get all the other traits she wants. But we were curious: why didn’t Noris mention flavor?
LEDESMA: I’m not that worried about that. So if I was trying to do the perfect watermelon, I have to be worried about it because you don’t have much to choose.
GRABER: Noris says watermelon is just two notes: sweet, and water. Nothing like the complexity of mangoes.
LEDESMA: But with mango is so much that you have in the pot, that anything then you grab from that is going to be just so good.
TWILLEY: Alright, so this is progress. We have two very promising sounding candidates to replace the Tommy Atkins at my local supermarket. But I am not a patient person. And plant breeding is a very slow process, even with David’s genetic map. I’m afraid these new varieties are probably a decade away.
LEDESMA: No, I’m a lucky girl. I know that I’m going to have one decent mango in the next two years.
GRABER: Even if Noris is that lucky, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to buy one at the store in two years, unfortunately. There’s a whole supply chain: convincing farmers to grow them, making sure they fit the packaging, everything. But Noris certainly is optimistic, and it’s contagious. I believe in her.
TWILLEY: Noris also pointed out that we’ve had bad mangoes for so long that frankly any new and improved mango will need better marketing.
LEDESMA: I’m amazed about the job that the avocado marketing has been doing. The Avocado Association had done an extraordinary job.
GRABER: As you might remember from our recent avocado episode, the avocado board did a whole sexy fruit job on the avocado, and it worked.
LEDESMA: And I said to myself if they had been able to accomplish all this with a fruit that it is not that appealing, is green, and kind of boring, I’m sorry. And also you have to put a lot of things in order to eat it. You know you have to put salt, garlic, olive oil. And mangoes you don’t need any of that!
TWILLEY: Dude, I’m sold already. But here’s the thing. Cynthia and I are aware that we have just done something really unfair to you, dear listeners. We have told you that your mangoes suck, we have painted a picture of mango paradise, and now what? We can’t leave you like this! That’s just mean.
GRABER: We asked Noris what you should do…
LEDESMA: I think they should visit south Florida during mango season, which is in July. We don’t have just hurricanes, we have wonderful weather, wonderful beaches to visit. They can come to the Everglades National Park and eat mangoes with us.
TWILLEY: In fact, Noris holds a fabulous mango festival every year in July, where you can taste many of the six hundred varieties she grows at the Fairchild Garden. We just missed it but it sounds amazing.
GRABER: Definitely worth it. We also asked Sohail what his advice was for Americans on a quest for better tasting mangoes.
HASHMI: You have to come to India. I only hope all the Americans don’t come together. Let them come in small numbers. We love to share but we may not love to share all of them together because there’s nothing left for us.
TWILLEY: OK, so, start looking for cheap flights.
GRABER: And, in the meantime, back at home, buy yourself one of those little yellow Ataulfo mangoes. It might look less shiny and perfect than a Tommy Atkins, but it will taste a lot better.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Noris Ledesma at the Fairchild Tropical Garden, and to David Kuhn and Barbie Freeman at the USDA’s research center.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Sohail Hashmi and Rhitu Chatterjee and Myles Karp.
GRABER: We have links to all the people you’ve heard this episode at gastropod.com. And we also have some photos of our Miami mango orgy. Unfortunately we don’t have the technology to capture the smell and taste for you. So maybe a July trip to Miami is in order!
TWILLEY: Or Delhi in June.
GRABER: As always, we’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new question: For those of us who are not vegetarian, why do we eat the animals we eat?
NAOMI SYKES: So, in terms of the chicken, for instance, because we eat chickens now, that’s all they’re for, right, is for food—for meat and for eggs. The assumption is that that’s always what they’ve been used for. And all of the evidence that we’ve got at the moment suggests that’s not the case at all.