We are proud to present a brand-new book by MIAMI Magazine dining critic Jen Karetnick! Mango is a culinary tour of all things mango, featuring recipes from Allen Susser, Michelle Bernstein, Andrea Curto-Randazzo, Douglas Rodriguez, and other celebrated Miami chefs.
The book was inspired by a historic Miami Shores property known as Mango House. Built in the 1930s for mango pickers as part of a plantation that is now demolished, the cottage is a jungle-like property with a wrought iron fence, coral rock front steps, peaked green slate roof, and fourteen mango trees. Since Karetnick moved into Mango House, the fruit trees have become a part of daily life for her family, showering the house with mangos every year from May through October.
Today special guest Jen Karetnick shares what it’s like to live in Mango House, the dangers of living with fruit trees, and what crop comes next once mango season is over.
Mangos, Avocados, Pineapples, and Me
By Jen Karetnick
I walk gingerly on the deck on my way out to the back yard to check on the avocado trees. We have two healthy Choquette varietals planted in between the fourteen mango trees that dot our acre of land; it was common practice, when the large commercial pineapple and mango groves that would become the suburban village of Miami Shores was planted, to alternate the fruit with avocado trees.
The pineapples are long gone. But most of the smaller plots of our neighbors hold either an avocado tree or a mango tree, and many have one or more of each, though mangos are more common. (Unlike avocado trees, mangos aren’t male or female, and don’t need partners for buds to become fertilized and grow into actual fruit.) If you stand next to one of these trees and look into a neighbor’s yard, peering as with x-ray vision through ficus hedges and fences, you can see how the trees all line up into rows, and imagine how this nearly four square-mile tract of farmland must have looked before it was sold to developers and subdivided into family homes.
I’m preoccupied. Unlike mangos, which fall into friendly hands like babies, the avocados will stick insistently to their stems until they are almost overgrown. But the fall rains and winds, not to mention persistent squirrels who sit on top of them and nibble, can take them down before they’re ready. Have any fallen during the last rainstorm? Should I pick a couple for friends at school? This is what I am thinking now that mango season is over, and even though I am careful about where I step, I forget that the acids of last season’s fallen mangos have eaten through the boards. I hear a crack, and yep, there it is: my heel has gone right through the wood of the deck, which is so black with rot in this portion it looks burnt.
This is just one of the dangers of living with so many fruit trees. There’s the mango blossoms to which three out of the four of us are allergic. There’s the dead wood the trees shed like hair when the season is over. There are the two-pound mangos that fall without warning and hit you on the head, or the arm, or the shoulder. There are the rats, possums and raccoons that fight over the fruit during the night, and who knows what they’ll do to your cat? And if you think banana peels are slippery, you’ve never stepped on a half-disintegrated mango hiding in long grass.
The adage “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind daily, sometimes hourly, existing in Mango House. Searching for our first real house in 2000, my husband and I wanted property with a fruit tree on it. Any kind of fruit tree. I’m not sure why, looking back. It may be that because I was then pregnant with my son, I was subconsciously feeling that fertility was a sign of growth and happiness. It may have been my personal misconceptions about living in South Florida, and the Sunshine State in general—every yard should have fruit in it. It may have been my profession as a food writer, and a desire to live off the land as much as possible.
So when we happened upon Mango House, which originally was a cottage built from Miami-Dade County Pine and coral (both materials now endangered and no longer allowed to be harvested for building) for mango pickers, we knew it was for us. Once she saw our interest in the trees and the history of the house, the Realtor played us expertly with more stories. The alleyway that runs along the south side used to be a canal, and the Miccosukee Indians would paddle their canoes, filled with venison, up to the plantation. They’d camp on the property overnight, and leave the next morning with bark boats filled with fruit, and deer hanging in the trees for the pickers. We were sold.
To tell the truth, I still am. The house has been through many renovations. The first couple who bought it from the mango plantation put in plumbing and added quartz and other “hippie-dippie” crystals to the coral (they’re beautiful, and I feel safe and protected every time I look at them). Another family added the master bedroom and the loft in it—originally for a telescope—that has become my office. I’ve even met a woman who raised her family in a previous incarnation of the house. She came over to marvel at what it looks like now, after a Venezuelan man got his hands on it and put in every luxury he could think of—copper bath fixtures, granite countertops, amenities imported from England and Germany—before getting divorced and going bankrupt.
The need for repairs is constant, and we can’t keep up. The old-house feel—and, I admit, smell—bothers my daughter, who longs for a plain white box of a condominium overlooking the ocean. Neither she nor my son will collect the mangos, though my son devours several per day and whatever I make with them during season. My husband constantly worries about the mortgage. I won’t say I don’t care, but every time I begin to feel real concern, the pull of the land takes over. The mangos have such hold on me that I’ve even gotten a couple of tattoos inspired by them, and am planning a few more.
It is with that thought—the design of my next tattoo, not the design of the deck that badly requires attention—that brings me back to the present. I wrench my heel from the wood, which to be honest doesn’t require much of a tug at all. Mango season is over for now, and the avocados await. It’s October in Florida, the beginning of our growing season. I am wishing I had more time for my garden, currently fallow. I am musing, too, about where, if I can find the time, I might be able to plant pineapples, and really return this land that I have borrowed to its most natural state of grace.
Still, it’s the mangos that brought me here, and it’s only a few short months until January, when the trees bloom, the flowers turn into tiny green buds that hide like frogs, and I start to watch them mature. They have hold of me, and as much damage as they do, they also cast a spell from which I can’t, and don’t want to, escape.
In addition to Mango and her food journalism work, Jen Karetnick is the author of four poetry chapbooks and the full-length poetry collection Brie Season. She is creative writing director at Miami Arts Charter School.
Jen Karetnick will present Mango on Saturday, October 25, 5:00pm, at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida.