As American as apple pie—it’s a phrase that suggests a gingham tablecloth, a plate full of warm pastry cooling in an open window, a grandmotherly type bustling in a tidy kitchen. It’s the invocation of an idealized past. As we barrel toward the Fourth of July this year, let’s set the apple aside for a moment and consider the grapefruit instead.
It doesn’t come with the pagan mythos of Johnny Appleseed, and it can’t brag that it kept the frontier inebriated, but the story of the grapefruit follows the path of some very quintessential issues of American identity.
Citrus arrived in the New World in 1493, on one of the 17 ships in the fleet that Christopher Columbus commandeered for his return. While he set to the business of colonization and genocide, the trees flourished in the Caribbean sun.
Citrus is a rare horticultural beast. All of the blood oranges and tangelos, ugli fruits and yuzus that exist today come from just a handful of original citrus varieties that started out in Asia, about seven million years ago. As a genus, citrus is all sexually compatible because it is so closely related—a buddha’s hand and a tangerine can cross and make a viable new fruit. It is also highly prone to mutation, meaning that new citrus varieties pop up in the wild, and on experimental farms, all the time.
Thought to be a cross between a sweet orange and a pomelo or shaddock, the first known mention of the grapefruit dates to 1750 on Barbados, according to the Oxford Companion to Food. By 1820, the Chevalier de Tussac, a French botanist, saw them in an official botanical garden and wrote that “the English in Jamaica call this the ‘forbidden fruit’ or ‘smaller shaddock.'” In 1823 they traveled to Florida with a French count named Odette Phillippe, where they slowly gained some commercial popularity.
From morning orange juice, which some people still drink, to the lime juice that gives guacamole its tang, citrus is intwined in American food culture—but only the grapefruit is a true product of the Americas, a natural hybrid and the botanical version of a second generation immigrant.
Grapefruit has a strange name, which likely comes from some island amalgam of French and English—the smaller varieties that were the norm when the fruit was first discovered in the Caribbean grew in grape-like clusters. “Grappes” is the French word for cluster. Cluster fruit. The strangeness of the fruit itself and the misleading name made it slower to catch on than sweet, juicy oranges and sunny, tart lemons. That relative obscurity has, on occasion, made the grapefruit a jumping off point to condescend to others with an air of good natured authority, which is a bit of an American pastime.
Supposedly it was the Great Depression that put the grapefruit in front of a wide American audience, during which surplus grapefruit, along with other agricultural extras, were handed out to hungry families. One widely noted story claims that housewives who had never seen them before reported that even after an hour of boiling grapefruit remained too tough to eat. Similarly, Aziz Ansari has a famous bit overhearing 50 Cent, the rapper, ordering a grapefruit soda in a restaurant and then being confused when it wasn’t purple. 50 Cent has since refuted this anecdote.
These stories share a common know-it-all spirit infused with a soupçon of racism and classism. Can you believe? Rappers make a lot of money, but they still don’t really recognize common middle class items. Can you believe? Poor women had no idea what a grapefruit was so instead of asking someone or cutting into one to see what was inside, they just boiled and boiled them and then tried to eat them, poor dears.
What is more American than a diet? The Grapefruit Diet, also known as the Hollywood Diet, is one of the original fad diets, and is based on the idea that a special enzyme in grapefruit burns fat. Researchers have not found evidence to support this idea beyond baseline benefits that come from adding fruits and vegetables to every meal. There is an enzyme in grapefruit that interferes with the way the body processes some substances, notably many medications, but it does not have a slimming or fat burning effect.
The gist of the Grapefruit Diet, sort of like the Cabbage Soup Diet or the Master Cleanse Lemonade Diet, is a very low calorie, low carb meal plan that includes a grapefruit or grapefruit juice at every meal. We’re talking 800 calories a day. Dieters follow the plan for 10 (or sometimes 12) days, then take two days off, then repeat. First popular in the 1930s, the Grapefruit Diet came back in the 1980s when it was sometimes referred to as the super sane and healthy sounding 10 Pounds in 10 Days Diet. Perhaps the most American thing of all about grapefruit is that The Grapefruit Diet was popular enough to inspire a Weird Al parody of the song “Zoot Suit Riot.”
Trump drinks Diet Coke. A lot of it. He’s not the first Oval Office occupant to be way into diet soda, though. That was LBJ. Fresca, a lime and grapefruit-flavored diet soda, was introduced in 1966, and Johnson was very, very into it, possibly because grapefruit is a major crop in his home state of Texas. There are unsubstantiated tales of Johnson’s Fresca tap in the Oval Office (it seems that he was actually more into having it served to him by a butler), and not only did he enjoy drinking Fresca, he enjoyed using it as a power play, by bullying other politicians into drinking it with him. Sometimes a diet soda is not just a low calorie beverage. Has apple juice ever been used as a ploy to ignore the results of a senator’s fact finding mission on a military action in a foreign country?
In 1907 the first pink grapefruit was discovered in Florida. If the grapefruit itself is a product of the New World as a whole, the pink grapefruit is wholly American. Its brightly hued flesh comes from increased levels of beta carotene and lycopene, and the color is vivid enough to seem artificial, which in country that loves pink lemonade and blue raspberry is a leg up for a fruit with a lackluster name.
Pink grapefruit may look artificial, but its flavor is notoriously difficult to synthesize in a lab. The chemical that gives grapefruit its distinct flavor is called nookatone and it is very, very potent stuff. That means that grapefruit itself has a very small amount of nookatone, making it expensive to create grapefruit essence for seltzer, shower gel, candy, or perfume, from actual grapefruit. Oxford Biotrans, a British biochemical company, makes nookatone from valencene, a chemical found in other citrus fruit at much higher levels. “Historically it’s a very interesting one for academics to work on because it’s quite a difficult chemical synthesis,” says Dr. Matthew Hodges, Director of Commercial Operations at Biotrans of nookatone. “They enjoy challenges.”
Dr. Hodges said that in the fragrance and flavor industry specific compounds go in and out of style, and that citrus in general is very on trend currently,”These wax and wane, one thing becomes popular for awhile and then it disappears. Grapefruit is a good measure for that,” he says. “We see people more aware of the compound now and they’re putting it in more products.”
Those products Dr. Hodges mentioned? Take a walk down the beverage aisle at your average grocery store and you’ll spot not only grapefruit juice, but grapefruit seltzer; shandy—traditionally a beer and lemonade combination; radler—similar but German instead of British; grapefruity wine coolers for hipsters; and craft beers brewed with grapefruit juice and peel.
“Grapefruit is so refreshing,” says, Jennifer Glanville, a brewer at Samuel Adams who worked to develop the company’s Rebel Grapefruit IPA at their experimental 10-gallon nano brewery in Boston. “It has a sort of earthy, pithy character that balances that sour, that touch of the sweet, that citrus character, to me bringing that all together is what makes grapefruit such an awesome fruit.” Glanville’s beer is brewed with grapefruit peel and juice, not with synthesized nookatone, but her assessment of it as a flavor that binds together the sweet, sour, bitter, and earthy into something refreshing and original is worth holding in your mind. We’re in a real moment here in the US and grapefruit, it gets us because it is us.