The Mango King
“He showed us the realm of good-eating fruit, and we have come to protect this pleasure fiercely.”
And all along Biscayne Bay, an eerie truth of Andrew having its way: All the sea grasses are in straight lines, all leaning to the west.
—The Miami Herald, August 25, 1992
I like to tell people that my dad is the Mango King, but he’s quick to set me straight. “We’re not one of the big guys,” he says, “but we are considered one of the players in the deal.”
Once upon a time, mango was but a niche fruit in the United States. On the continental U.S., only south Florida had a significant commercial crop. Mango stands would proliferate during the short summer harvest, and the fruit was a staple on the plates of south Floridians. There, the taste for mango had been cultivated since 1833, when the fruit was introduced to the region.
The Mango King does not think niche; he thinks nationally. From an office in Los Angeles, he orchestrates the import and distribution of the fruit and vegetables eaten every day in America for grocers across the country, and mango is one of his specialties. He remembers these Florida summer mangos from his early days in the deal in the seventies. He remembers the Oro in winter. The Oro could weather its February journey from southern Mexico to the U.S. well, had a good shelf life, and had a small but reliable customer base around the country.“They looked good, but tasted like turpentine,” he says. “It was not a good-eating fruit.”
You can eat mango when the flesh is green, hard, and sour, and you can use them like potatoes when they are unripe, but the good-eating fruit that enchanted the Mango King had sunshine in its flesh. When a mango is this kind of good-eating, you can mash it on the roof of your mouth with your tongue and it will slip down your throat, cool, sweet, smooth. Nations vie for the crown of the best-eating mango, but the Mango King does not take sides. His loyalty lies with taste.
Just have a taste, I tell my husband before he becomes my husband.
I am preparing breakfast at my dad’s house and we’re alone. I have spooned yogurt into my stepmother’s thick ceramic bowls and am cutting up an Ataulfo mango.
My husband is reluctant to eat. “I’m still sick of mango from having eaten too much of it dried,” he says.
A few years before we met, he worked on a documentary about fair trade and spent a few days filming in a remote jungle in the Philippines. The locals were starving because multinational corporations who had made shady deals with the government over land rights had chased them off their ancestral land. The five-man film crew ate what the locals ate: one parcel of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf per day. Before the crew left for the jungle, an entrepreneur they’d interviewed who ran a mango factory and paid his workers fairly gifted to each of them a kilos-heavy goodie bag of processed mango. Pickled mango. Dried mango in various formats. Mango chutney. Boxes of mango juice. They shared everything they had. Whenever my husband tasted processed mango, he was reminded of what he saw in the jungle, of the everyday injustices that makes so many everyday pleasures possible.
But he hasn’t told me this story yet. So I assume he’s simply never had a good-eating mango.
I pester: “Come on. It’s fresh mango. It’s my dad’s mango. There’s nothing like it. He’s . . . the Mango King!”
A nickname is born.
“And so that makes you the Mango Princess?”
This makes me squirmy. I like feeling like I’m my father’s daughter; it’s a new feeling. We’ve lived on different continents since I was fourteen. And we didn’t always know how to talk to each other.
My husband sees me blushing, and teases me until we’re both giggling.
The Mango King tells me about his first import deal. He reminisces about the night his partner across the border in Puerto Vallarta took the agricultural inspector on the town. The ag inspector was a guy who arrived with a frown and a clipboard and a bone to pick, angling to pad his wallet with a mordida. I don’t like your packing shed. Your fumigation chamber looks funny. They made a show of taking him seriously and then spirited him away to dinner and drinks, trying to make him smile, trying to soften the transaction. When the night was over, the car was full, so the Mango King hitched a ride back to town on a delivery truck loaded with mango. The driver was Jewish, which made it easier to converse. At that point my dad had learned more Yiddish slang working in the produce industry than he had Spanish, and when they’d run out of words they both understood, they spent the rest of the ride singing “Hava Nagila” at the top of their lungs. He traveled to Puerto Vallarta a lot in the eighties. I remember family vacations involving beaches and caves and colorful pottery and visits to a family friend’s home, but until he tells me this story, I hadn’t realized these vacations were business trips too.
He talks and talks and then he says, “You know what? I think you were conceived on one of those trips.”
Eating fruit together at the kitchen counter sometimes puts him in a wistful mood. “Even as a baby, you loved mango,” he’ll say.
When Andrew made landfall on August 24, 1992, it was the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the United States. The power cut for more than 1.3 million households in South Miami-Dade, Florida. Cars and vans were lifted from the ground by winds blowing as fast as 168 miles per hour. Tiles flew off the roofs of houses and trailer parks became rubble. Looters looted. FEMA was criticized for its slow reaction time. We asked for silence for the dead.
In the Everglades alone, 70,000 acres of trees were downed. Countless commercial groves of tropical fruit in the town of Homestead were downed; it would take until November 2012 for the volume of SlimCado brand avocados to bounce back to pre-Andrew levels. The same cannot be said for the domestic mango crop: It never quite bounced back.
But Andrew marked a turning point that made the mango business in the US what it is today. Right after the hurricane, the market was a mess: “The government of Mexico had promoted mango as a potential export crop and consequently there were lots of plantings, which created excess supply,” the Mango King says. “Importers and sellers struggled with low prices, small margins and slow moving inventory. Some growers never got paid by fly-by-night companies.” There were whispers among the players in the deal about establishing an organization that would help tidy things up, help bring more consistent supplies of even-better-eating fruit to the country, that would help take this specialty drupe into the mainstream. The groundwork was laid, and in 2004 the Mango King was one of six regents who helped the National Mango Board take off.
Today, mango is one of the most popular tropical fruits in the U.S. This November, The Packer, one of the major produce industry trade newspapers, called mangos “the next big thing”; they might even get big as the once-niche It-fruit: the avocado.
Neither fruit is quite up there with bananas, but what can hold a candle to bananas? Bananas are already on people’s minds when they make their shopping lists. No one has to show you how to eat a banana.
I’d advise against touching mangos in the Mango King’s castle. We’ll come at you with knives.
“Don’t be afraid.” Knife glinting in the sun. “We’ll show you how to eat it.”
We’ll snatch it from your hands.
“The stone! People are always thrown by the stone. They expect it to be like a peach, not woven into the flesh,” we’ll say as we cut off each cheek.
The mango will then be in three pieces. Someone will be waiting for the knife-wielder to set the stone aside, so that she may grab it and bend over the sink and suck every last bit of juice and flesh from around the stone, sticky liquid dripping down her chin. We cut a grid into each cheek and press so the diced fruit bulges like a cubist porcupine, and slice the meat from the skin. Diced mango thuds into a ceramic bowl. My stepmother, her youngest daughter, or I will then douse it with lime. Our bullish evangelism binds our families in ways that blood does not.
The Mango King never encouraged our barbarism. He has always been a gentle ambassador. He showed us the realm of good-eating fruit, and we have come to protect this pleasure fiercely.
Regular days in the realm of good-eating fruit:
Here is my father in a hat, polo shirt, and khakis in a grove in Guatemala, Brazil, Peru, Mexico. He visits growers; he takes trips for the Mango Board. Here is a packing house: conveyor belts, wooden pallets, and hot water treatment tanks under a corrugated metal roof in the middle of a lush forest, remote and humid. Here is an ad from the mid eighties for his first mango brand: Mango Man mangos, named for his mango man in Puerto Vallarta. It was one of “about a dozen” mango brands on the market then. The photographer had the mango cut to look like sliced apples, and every time my dad points it out, he smiles. How times have changed. Here is my dad tiptoeing into my bedroom to kiss me goodnight on the forehead. I blink and fall back asleep.
Here is my father taking me with him to the fruit market during school holidays to show me what work is like. He rolls down the window. The cold, salty air fills the car and he takes several deep breaths, clears his throat, and spits out the window. I am so young my hair is still blonde, and I think spitting is gross, but when he tells me it’s to clear out his lungs after sleep, I decide mine need clearing too. The stars are out and there is no one else on the coastal road. I clear my throat and spit. The glob flies out the window, is caught by the wind and lands on my face.
Here is a freeway, almost empty. There is no traffic when the Mango King drives. His hours are not the hours of other dads with other jobs. Since the advent of the car phone, he has always been available to take or make a call. He calls in to KNX 1070 News Radio with updates on unusual traffic patterns in the blue hours. The hosts call him Dollar Bill.
The market is low buildings tucked behind the high rises of downtown, around the corner from Skid Row. One of the main points of entry for fresh produce in America. He knows everyone on the street and in the market. He will be one of few to attend the funeral of the homeless man who chats with us about the morning.
A foreign language, the language of work, pours from him as he walks from warehouse to warehouse, opening boxes, commenting on size and shape and color, listening to complaints about a load, cutting deals, offering credit if the market has changed. We’re learning about the stock market in math class, and I think that this is just like trading on the New York Stock Exchange, but with things that rot instead of companies and commodities. He shakes hands and I shyly say hello. Some call him Guillermo. On the market, his English is heavily jargoned, woven with Spanish, Mexican slang and Mandarin. This sprawling city coheres on his tongue.
Forklifts rattle by. Eighteen-wheel trucks inch back and forth until they’re lined up with the loading dock. Food trucks sell tacos and hamburgers and French toast. Pallets of fresh fruit are neatly stacked in coolers in warehouses, but limes and tomatoes and corn and melons have rolled under dumpsters and into corners on the rumpled asphalt near the loading bays. When I am fully grown and living in a different country, I will always feel homesick when I catch a whiff of this confused scent. Cooling agents, fresh and moldering produce, grease on a hot stove, exhaust. The sun rises.
We retreat to his office, where the phone doesn’t stop ringing until after noon. He takes one call after the next. I’m given stacks of files to file; I’m told to go help the accounting team. He’s selling, he’s fixing, he’s negotiating. He has a certain spark. He seems to have four hands.
The people at the office seem happy, but I don’t think their happiness can be mine. If this is work, I’m not sure it’s for me.
When we get in the car to go home, I am tired and want nothing but silence and solitude. We slump in the armchairs in the living room and watch a VHS recording of the latest Saturday Night Live. The show airs late, and he’s often asleep before the opening credits. My mom fixes dinner. He goes to bed by 9 p.m., but more phone calls come in at night. Truckers and clients with problems that need fixing. The truck has not arrived. The truck must be located. The truck is in Nevada and has been parked outside a cathouse for days. The tomatoes in the trailer are now rotten. No matter who calls and how much sleep he gets, he wakes by 4 a.m. to get to the market again. I struggle to wake up over breakfast with my mother, always on the cusp of being late to school.
He works hard, harder than most, and I know that not all work has to be like this, that not all success comes from following this path, but I will always feel a strange anxiety for not waking before dawn.
You’re just like your father, my mother will tell me when I take charge of plans or insist they be made around my schedule. My father and mother are no longer together, and I no longer live in the same country as he does. I don’t know how to turn this around and make it a compliment. In these stormy teenage years, I don’t know my father well enough to know what it means to be an apple that has fallen close to the tree. I don’t want to be that apple. I want to be an heirloom variety sprung from an heirloom tree in an heirloom landscape. Pure and unaltered, free.
But since the first people first found fruit they thought was good-eating, they favored that tree. They’ve been culturing the landscape; they’ve been grafting scions from trees that bear good-eating fruit to ensure there’s a good or better or bigger harvest next season. With each new planting, we look at the land and determine what it can bear. We select our cultivars accordingly. We bind our grafts and wait for the buds to sprout. And each time we’ve changed nature, nature has changed, and each change has led to you and me.
Just under 35 million pounds of fresh mango were imported in the US in January 2015. (This number excludes the domestic crop and the fruit produced in Haiti.) For each pound that enters the market, three quarters of a cent went to the National Mango Board. Some of those 3/4 cents were spent on improving industry relations; some were spent on research. Some of those 3/4 cents went to marketing.
This year, mangos are the official superfruit of the National Women’s Soccer League. Spokespeople, including chef and “Mango Magnate” Allen Susser, are working to educate other chefs and the general public on how to choose, cut, and incorporate mangos into their cooking. If you caught Clinton Kelly mixing mango margaritas on ABC’s The Chew in 2014, that was the Mango Board’s doing. If you’re one of nearly 3 million people who watched Chef Allen’s 2007 YouTube video on how to cut a mango, that was the Mango Board. An independent study concluded that ten percent of the increase in market penetration between 2008 and 2013 was due to the board’s activities.
They know why you do and do not buy mangos. There’s little they can do about people who don’t like the taste, but for the rest of us, they have a strategy in place. They know you don’t know what you’re missing. They’re going to show you how to eat it, and hope the taste of good-eating fruit will persuade you to keep it in mind.
I work in his office. I work in other offices in other industries. I start to understand what it means to love what you do. And once I get going with something, I think nothing of working through the night. I think nothing of feeling my heart race as I cut deals and lock things down. Everything I do is work: my socializing is work; my vacations are not really vacations because they are connected to work; I go to the gym in the mornings because it helps me work. I tell myself I am succeeding.
Whenever I wind down, I feel anxious. Whenever I’m not slammed with projects, I feel anxious. When I want to focus on writing, I feel anxious. When I notice that I’ve let myself relax, I feel anxious. When I come home from foreign countries to visit my dad, I watch him work and realize that I have chosen his way of working without choosing.
I decide to stop.
I ask my father: What’s next?
He says: Do what you love.
The Mango King is in a mango orchard and is doing what you do when you’re a guardian of the realm of good-eating fruit. He’s gathering information so he can predict pricing, volume, supply, and quality.
Are they irrigating?
How are they irrigating?
Are the trees healthy?
Are they adding the right nutrients?
Are they pruning the tree correctly so that sunlight will reach the fruit and give it that blush you like to see on a Haden’s skin?
The Mango King looks the nearby trees up and down, pinches their leaves, admires their buds. He digs the toe of his shoe into the red earth, just dry enough. He smiles that smile he only smiles when he is doing this.