Quenepas

Photo via Zoom's Edible Plants
I think I was nine the year I went to Puerto Rico with my dad for his friend's son's Christening. My mom and brother stayed home for reasons I can't remember, so for two weeks it was just the two of us, exploring the island and eating. Like me, my father likes to snack and feast, and thinks about his next meal midway through the current one. He gladly handed dollar bills out the car window to panhandlers on the highway selling plantain chips and bags of cucas, hard round cookies about the size of my palm that tasted of ginger and shortening with a hint of exhaust. They're the kind of cookies you gnaw on instead of chew, and I could gnaw through a bag for the better part of an afternoon while driving across the island.

We were heading east towards El Yunque, the lush tropical rainforest where my dad's hippie friend would be Christening his son in a river, because on this island even the hippies are Catholics. I wore an orange bathing suit that had reached its final summer, the fabric having grown thin and pilly from chlorine and rough concrete pool walls. The plastic fastener on the back had also grown loose and popped open repeatedly, but I didn't care because I was nine and had been brought to a real river in a real jungle to swim and play with cousins I only barely knew. We climbed huge boulders slick with vegetation, and jumped into the fresh water. Accustomed to pools, at first I squirmed at the thought of fish swimming between my toes in the murky depths, but soon shrugged it off after the third, fourth, fifth jump. The adults weren't really watching us, though they weren't far. Someone discovered a vine that dropped thick and strong from overhead and we grabbed it and swung and dropped in.

In the middle of the afternoon, we broke for the ceremony, and stood by watching as the baby's head was gently washed with three handfuls of fresh water from the river. One for the Father. One for the Son. One for the Holy Spirit. We broke into applause and were released once again. I lay on a boulder with a book, lapping up sun like a lizard and allowing myself to be interrupted only for the occasional treats my father offered--codfish fritters, flaky turnovers filled with cheese, and a bowl filled with quenepas.

Quenepas were always served with a warning. The tough outer shell bursts easily between your teeth with just the slightest pressure revealing a slick, fleshy pulp clinging to a pit. The texture feels almost inappropriate, but the fruit tastes of sweet lime and roses. Eating it is dangerous, since the smooth ball can easily slip down a throat, but we'd been eating them since forever and brushed off the warnings as we sucked on the juicy pulp. After a while, the tannins in the shell left the tips of our tongues feeling like they, too, had been sucked on.

Quenepas are everywhere in Puerto Rico, but in New York they're rare. So I tucked a bag of them among sandy shorts and t-shirts just before flying back. They didn't scan things quite as carefully then, and the seeded branch made it through two airports undisturbed. Back in school I told the class about the river, laying out smooth stones that I'd pulled out of the water and passing out one smooth lime green fruit to each of my friends. The teacher, a substitute with a puff of yellow hair and a southern accent, pronounced the names strangely, with a soft y and long a's, and said the word "baptism" like she'd never heard of such a thing. For a moment I questioned whether it was I who'd made the mistake; a wrong translation, maybe, or some kind of cultural difference. But the kids understood, and I knew that it was just her.

Years later I left my office in the afternoon mug of August to find myself standing in front of a box of them. Tiny green limes with just a hint of bruise all clustered on branches. The vender stared at me oddly as I hungrily shoveled large handfuls into the bag he'd given me. I brought six pounds back to my desk, dropping the pile excitedly before the coworkers who stared at me just as oddly. Stories of river and orange bathing suits tumbled out of my mouth as I showed them the way the delicate shell burst between my teeth.

"Be careful," I warned, when they finally lifted one up to their mouths. "They're dangerous."

8 comments:

  1. Wow, I had nearly forgotten all about these! My uncle used to buy them at the market near the WTC on his way home from work. Talk about cravings...

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  2. Oh how I would love to find these in nyc! and does anyone know where I could find 'quesitos' in nyc as well?

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  3. Oh I love quesitos too!! I'm not sure where to find them, but will look into it and write about it.

    As for the quenepas, a friend told me they sell them in the chase plaza downtown, across from the duane reade. Said they're 2.99 a pound. Will let you know if I find them!

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  4. What a lovely story! I have never tasted quenepas & don't know if they are available over here.

    Greetings,
    Tiina

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  5. It's nice to learn about foods/fruits from various regions around the world and lovely to read the memories the quenepas brings back to you.

    My family is from India; I have many memories of eating foods my friends considered "strange": cassava root, lychee fruit, and ivy gourds to name a few.

    Take care!
    Amrita

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  6. I went in search of some yesterday in NYC but no luck! I get a call from my father today that he's found them and he's bringing them all the way to L.I.just for me! I wait all year for them but have not been able to find them for the past two years! I have only been to Puerto Rico once for only 3-4 days but I can't wait to visit again!

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  7. I just came from Puerto Rico ( La Isla del Encanto) and I brought a bunch of quenepas in my suitcase. They are really good! I love it. My brother has a tree of quenepas in his house and everybody goes to pick them this is the time for quenepas.

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  8. You can find them at the fruit vendors in NYC and all over the Bronx

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