The quenepa is a tree-grown fruit found in a gigantic swath of the tropics: From Florida to Mexico it grows, and across the Caribbean and Central and South America. It is my favorite fruit, by far, because it is a bit like candy. That is why kids adore it, as do virtually all adults who grew up with it, as I did in San Juan, Puerto Rico.1
But it’s a hard sell for my fellow Minnesotans. I’ve been trying to seduce them for years. I once returned from a trip to the tropics brandishing a bag of quenepas (also commonly called mamoncillos or Spanish limes among other names, and officially dubbed Melicoccus bijugatus), and excitedly handed them out to my friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
Invariably, the reaction was puzzlement — or even mild disgust. I couldn’t fathom this, because quenepas are so good and so easy to eat.
Use your teeth to gently crack the thin, green skin on the quenepa, which looks like a midget lime. Remove the pit, leaving the orange-colored pulp that tastes…unique, but with tantalizing hints of apricot, peach, orange, and lemon.
Pop the fruit in its peel in your mouth and suck, suck, suck on it until only dried-up pulp remains, and discard. Repeat.
What’s not to like?
“Slimy” is a word I heard a lot among those I handed quenepas. Some couldn’t even be persuaded to crack one open.
One colleague peered at his fruit for a few seconds while holding it gingerly with thumb and forefinger, and then, with his face blank, slid it into his pocket. I read his intentions — he would wait until I was not around and lob the mamón into the trash — and I insisted on its return. I’d be damned if I’d let a single precious genipe go to waste.
“What is wrong with you people?” I wanted to yell. “There’s more than supermarket-aisle apples, bananas, and oranges that have been bred into insipid uniformity, y’know!”
I do not mean to imply that gringos as a rule do not get it. On the rare occasions when a bunch of quenepas miraculously appeared on shelves of Latino or Asian groceries in St. Paul, I’d see Floridians walk in, eyes wide — they sometimes looked like they wanted to cry. (So did I, guys, so did I.)
But they were raised on the things, just as I was in Borinquen and my wife in South America (she and I have epic mock fights about its proper name; I favor quenepa while she insists the correct designation is mamoncillo).
My wife and I demonstrate, via an audio battle, the proper pronunciations of “quenepa” and “mamoncillo.”
For other americanos, especially those in the far north, the quenepa may just be too weird. At least, I have yet to find an adult who likes it even after I’ve made my sales pitch and offered up a sample.
I’m a passionate geek, and I like to convince others to try the new things I’ve found that are fantastic. I’m fired up by everything nerdy: the latest notebook computers and handhelds, the newest killer apps and social networks, and the coolest comic books and geek-themed toys.
These are interests meant to be shared. Nerds, by our nature, are not content to pursue such passions alone. We’re obsessed with getting others to grasp and embrace them. We know we’re in a niche, but we want that niche to grow.
Such pursuits needn’t be overtly techy or nerdy either, as my proselytizing for quenepas shows. They can be anything at all. A nerd who succeeds in converting the uninitiated to his or her way of thinking feels like a fucking Moses. A nerd who fails might slide into despondency. At least, that is how this nerd has felt on a handful of such quests (some triumphant, some failed) over the years.
Coffee is easier to sell than an unusual tropical fruit in the Twin Cities, where you’ll run into Caribou Coffee or Dunn Bros establishments on nearly every inner-city commercial zone and in every suburban mall. Minnesotans do love their java, and that makes them receptive to another of my obsessions: the AeroPress.
I used to think expensive coffee-making gear was required to make an exemplary cuppa joe. Then, among the laptops and handsets and other pricey tech gadgets that regularly show up on my desk at work to be evaluated, one day an assortment of plastic tubes and doodads appeared.
My life changed at that moment, though it took a while for me to realize it. Oh, the dreck I used to drink because I thought fantastic-tasting homemade café was beyond my grasp (affordably, anyway). Nope.
The AeroPress is deceptively simple. You spoon coffee grounds and pour hot water into a plastic tube that has a filter at one end. You then push a slightly narrower, plunger-like tube through the first one to force the water through the filter and into a mug. Elementary!
Yet the results taste amazing — even more so with AeroPress-brewing variations that acolytes of the gadget’s inventor, Alan Adler, have devised over the years. The AeroPress subculture is profoundly gadget-nerdy, with gazillions of YouTube tutorial videos and recurring events called AeroPress Championships that award trophies in the shape of — you guessed it — an AeroPress.
“Do you like coffee?” I’d ask people at random. If their answer was in the affirmative, I’d add, “Oh, good, I have to tell you about my favorite coffee maker.” If their answer was in the negative, I was not fazed: “You might develop a taste for it if you buy an AeroPress. Have you heard of it?”
I got my mother pressin’. My best friend, another nerd, was thrilled with the AeroPress I gave him as a present, declaring it a “sci-fi coffee blaster.” A few of my coworkers, duly converted, put a communal AeroPress in a vacant newsroom cubicle so anyone could lift the gizmo lovingly from its decorative basket for brewing sessions.
Heck, I even won over my newspaper’s then food critic, Kathy Jenkins, who called the AeroPress “the little black dress of coffee makers.”
I have no clue how many AeroPress purchases I’ve triggered to date, but the figure is significant…and thus represents my greatest triumph of nerd indoctrination.
That’s crazy, chicken
I’m in the midst of another campaign.
I spotted a Latin-style fast-food chicken establishment near downtown St. Paul not long ago, and grew more and more curious about it as I drove by it every day. I finally talked my skeptical wife into trying it with me.
Turns out Pollo Campero, a chain originating in Guatemala in the early 1970s, is something of a sensation among Latin Americans and, increasingly, stateside Latinos as enclaves pop up around the country. Its juicy grilled chicken is to die for (there is the fried kind, too), and its crispy yucca fries put those at the Twin Cities’ Brasa sit-down joints to shame. The empanadas are perfection, too. Pollo Campero has become a favorite for my family meals and date nights.
More to the point of this essay, it is also becoming my preferred setting for work-related lunch meetings. I am becoming obsessed with luring all of my colleagues and contacts over there. Once they bite into that insanely flavorful pollo, I know they’ll lose interest in KFCs like the one adjacent to St. Paul’s Campero (the only Campero in Minnesota, long may it endure).
Another, admittedly weirder, reason Pollo Campero fascinates me is its resemblance to Los Pollos Hermanos, the fictional fast-food chain that is a front for a methamphetamine trafficker in the, um, addictive TV series Breaking Bad.
My first time at Pollo Campero, I half expected to find a slender, dapper, bespectacled African-American manager taking my order (I wasn’t sure whether I’d smile or scream if this came to pass). No, Gustavo Fring’s doppelgänger never appeared, but I have come to regard Pollo Campero as so wicked cool that I want all to try it. My inner nerd insists that I evangelize it.
It begins at home
Sometimes I’m looking to convert an audience of one: my son.
The kid, now 14, is a micro-Julio who shares many of my classic nerd interests, from Star Trek and Star Wars (we agree to disagree on Jar Jar Binks) to Avatar: The Last Airbender and superhero-themed motion pictures.
So when I got it in my head to make sushi not long ago, even though I’m not much of a cook and I had never attempted anything remotely like the Japanese delicacies, I made sure my son was involved.
After a bit of Web research, I was rolling makizushi like a lunatic and obsessing about making the tightest, most rounded such cylinders. My son, however, proved to be the sushi Jedi after he watched me make maki but once or twice. This filled me with annoyance and pride. The boy and I bonded over sticky rice and seaweed wrapping.
A nerd pal, watching me blather on about sushi-making on Twitter and Facebook, invited me to her apartment for a tutorial that turned into a multi-family feast. My kid came along, and he was one of the sushi chefs at this nerd conclave.
I’ve lately been a fool for Sriracha sauce, too. My son, though fond of spicy food, is not convinced about the chili sauce, and he rolls his eyes when I half-seriously refer to the red goop as “one of mankind’s greatest inventions.” I’ll convert him to the way of the rooster soon enough. Oh, yes.
It was only recently that I learned, to my delight, that the author of the famed The Oatmeal Web comic is also Sriracha-crazed.
“Sriracha,” Matthew Inman writes on his site, in an homage that is also a clarion call to his fellow nerds, “You are a delicious blessing flavored with the incandescent glow of a thousand dying suns. I love you.”
I’m putting The Oatmeal on my son’s reading list.
By the way, speaking of children, I finally achieved a quenepa-campaign breakthrough not long ago.
We recently had neighbors — a Californian of Puerto Rican extraction and his Minnesotan wife — over for dinner. Their two older boys (of four kids) are good friends with my son; all are adventurous.
I handed them quenepas, and won converts in seconds. This fruit is almost like candy, as I said, so young ones are predisposed to take to it — I have yet to encounter one who doesn’t, regardless of whether he or she grew up with it or had just discovered it.
Every child is a passionate nerd, it seems. Too bad so many outgrow it.
Quenepa photo by James And James.
It’s pronounced “keh NEH pah.” ↩
Julio Ojeda-Zapata writes about tech for TwinCities.com and its dead-tree counterpart, the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. He has been known to slap a video together every now and then, as well, but text will always be his one true love.