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Pear Lessons

From an aesthetic standpoint, pears are first rate. Think of all those still life paintings of pears, with their voluptuous curves and subtle gradations of gold, russet, green and rose; the shape of the fruit caressing the light and shadow of the painter's brush.

I used to pick pears in the orchards of Washington State, and I soon came to appreciate their natural beauty. Even though picking pears was no delight -- the unripe fruit was heavy and often covered with the sticky secretions of insects, and those sensual curves caused them to nestle together in the bins, robbing pickers of precious air spaces, so we'd have to pick more before the bins were full -- yet, even then, I found pears lovely as the sun slanted through the leaves and danced sinuous detours around the fruit.

But all that artistic appeal was not enough to make me forget the discomforts of picking pears in the August heat, and after a few seasons, I quit. I still picked apples in the fall, though (their lighter weight and rounder shapes made the picking easier, and the cooler weather helped too), often next to a harvested pear orchard, and I'd smell the delectable fragrance of pears, from missed fruit that had ripened and fallen to the ground, creating a kind of heavenly pear mash smell. Those tree-ripened pears were not good to eat, as they became grainy and gritty on the tree, but their smell was wonderful -- to me, it was the quintessential smell of the season.

It's been many years since I picked fruit, but I still find myself contemplating this dual nature of pears, this time from a consumer viewpoint. First, consider eating. A perfectly ripened pear is a delight to eat, with a delicate aromatic flavor and a tender smooth texture. The pear suggests a European sensibility, a luxuriant and refined appreciation for the finer things in life.

But once again, the pear resists ease of enjoyment. As with so many luxuries, the perfectly ripened pear seems always just out of reach, maddeningly elusive. Its ripening habits are confounding: not only must pears be picked before they are ripe, but the picked fruit ripens from the inside of the fruit to the outside, so when a pear is soft to the touch, it is usually rotten. And, except for Bartletts, pears don't change color to indicate ripeness. A pear can be grass green and yet be ripe -- or not.

All these ripening quirks have caused many people I know to abandon pears, or nearly so. They've cut into hard pears with undeveloped flavor or grainy texture, and they've thrown away pears that have gone rotten, with flesh brown and mushy beneath a deceptively unchanging skin. One friend told me that in 30 years of eating Anjou pears, he'd eaten only three ripe ones. And a pear grower confided that "a ripe Anjou is a freak of nature."

Promoters of the fruit try to counteract this frustration by making the ripening process sound easy. Just press near the base of the stem gently with your thumb, they advise, and when it yields slightly, it's ripe. Lately, I've noticed that supermarket pears even come labeled with these instructions.

But this method is by no means as reliable as the Bartletts' color-changing indicator, and there's no simple way of predicting when the pears you buy today will be ripe. To complicate matters, pears remain only briefly in the state of perfect ripeness and quickly begin to spoil. One must stay up all night to eat a pear, an old saying goes -- in order to catch that moment of perfection. Perhaps that's why the English call an overripe pear "sleepy."

But pear marketers insist that you can control this ripening process. If you're eager to eat your pears soon, they say, place them in a paper bag and let them stand at room temperature -- for some unspecified amount of time. The first time I followed this advice, I completely forgot about the crumpled brown paper bag in the corner of my counter -- until it was too late. So I tried again. Half a dozen pears have been sitting in a paper bag all week, and I am still not sure they're ripe. The skin is wrinkling, and the part near the stem end does seem to give ever-so-slightly, but when I cut a slice of one, it crunched against my teeth like an apple.

Speaking of apples, why not just give up on pears and eat apples instead? Some people do just that. Food writer Molly O'Neill -- who usually waxes euphoric about her subject -- says she turned against pears early in life (probably because she ate them first in canned form) and finds it "difficult to forgive a raw pear for not being an apple." To support her bias against the fruit, she cites a 17th century French chef who calls the pear a "poor relation" to the apple.

I think all of this is just sour grapes, so to speak, from those who lack the patience or flexibility to deal with pears. Yes, they are a bit fussy, perhaps even difficult, but people used to think they were worth the trouble. In ancient times, the pear was considered superior to the apple, and Homer called it "the gift of the gods." And in 17th century France, O'Neill's cited chef must have been one of the few people not infatuated by pears; even Louis XIV named the pear as one of his favorite fruits. By the 18th century, Belgian growers had developed soft, juicy varieties that made pears even more appealing. And after Americans began growing the fruit in the 17th century (from seed imported from England), pears became wildly popular in this country, so much so that by the 19th century, New Englanders were said to have "pear mania."

Much of this enthusiasm probably had to do with the realities of life in cold climates, before the days of imported fruit. Imagine the thrill of eating a delectable juicy pear in the dead of winter, when no other soft fruit could be had. Of course, it would have been worth the care and patience to coddle the pear into perfect ripeness. In those days, I doubt that anyone would have indulged in such wasteful behavior as slicing into an unripe pear, or forgetting about a stash of ripening pears until they were rotten.

So I have been practicing with pears, buying them more often, surrendering my meal plans to their schedule. Sometimes, I have a ripe pear in my oatmeal in the morning, or in a salad with blue cheese and toasted walnuts. Sometimes I have no pears when I wish I had them. And other times, when several of the firm winter pears, such as Bosc or Anjou, ripen at once, I make an upside-down tart of caramelized pears topped with puff pastry, fine enough to share with others.

Yes, ripening pears is a challenge, and yes, it can be annoying, but it teaches me. To be patient. To pay attention. To be flexible in my desires. And when I am lucky enough to have attained that fleeting moment of ripeness, to act decisively and embrace the tender sweetness of that moment fully, right now. Those kind of lessons just don't come with imported fruit.