One of the main differences between England and Los Angeles that I have found is that where I’m from there isn’t a van on the side of the road selling mangoes. And coconuts with a straw. On the way back from the beach, tailing our way back from Malibu, wending our way up through Topanga Canyon, past the waves of blossoming, listing fennel and tall grey-green hills, there is always at least one open-backed van with a Mexican lady selling her boxes for $10 a piece. It could be avocados or strawberries, you’re never entirely sure, but you’ll be alerted by the signs. And then inside there’ll always be more. We bought a box of nine mangoes, but by the time we got home there were only seven. Mangoes are very hard to resist particularly when they have that give to them; these were on their way to softness, heavy as artillery in the hand, but oddly human to the touch, like a thigh or a calf.
There is none of the banter here that you would get in England. A box of mangoes would yield at least a bit of to and fro about the weight – are you alright there, love? Oh, these ones are gorgeous, just cut it in two and have it with a bit of cream, lovely – a bit of rough and tumble, someone sighing that you were taking too long. There’d be something. Here the exchange is reduced to the price. There was no acknowledgement I was there from the man standing next to me, even though it was just him and me on the side of a dusty road. Him, me and the lady with the fruit. She had her hair in pigtails, which on her looked expedient rather than odd. The three of us did the deed knowing we would not be seeing one another again. It was on the tip of my tongue to say something, because as an English person it is hard to let a moment go by without some kind of dithering nicety.
Hot isn’t it? The sea is cold. This road is long, isn’t it? It’s very green here etc. There’s none of that in LA. Here strangers tend to the loud and polite school of conversation – as if you have fallen down a well or a manhole but have sustained no serious injuries and would be up for a chat. “HI, HOW ARE YOU?” “Good, how are you?” “GREAT. ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND”. Or they’re silent, as if you’re not there at all. I have swum close enough in the pool to be able to read the typeface on a novel (by John Green), without so much as a flicker from the reader, perched on the steps with her legs under water, her torso dry as a bone, her nails a perfect peach. I would love to have said “Who’s John Green?” but that would have been to break the seal of silence, opening up a conversation possibly without end, and anyway I could always look it up on the internet. I don’t really want to know who John Green is, I just want you to know I’m here.
I gave two more mangoes away so we were left with five. It was after a conversation with one of our B&B guests. She’d stayed for only two days and was on her way out, up the coast to Big Sur. But we got chatting and then an hour went by, and she left with a mango in each hand and the rest of the chocolate-cardamom cookies, because they spoke to her ‘Indian soul’. Originally from New Delhi, she is a writer, a reader and a lover of food. We exchanged favourite books; I will now be reading Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. I hope my book recommendations made the grade, but it really doesn’t matter, because I had a conversation. A proper one. I made a friend. I bought some mangoes and gave them away. ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND!
The trick to cutting into a mango, I have learnt, is to cut as close to the stone as possible. Cut on either side, vertically, so that you have two even slabs of orange flesh, and then a central panel with the stone embedded, which you can gnaw around. There is no point trying to be demure; you will be dripping in mango juice and picking the fibres out of your teeth, so you might as well enjoy yourself. Score the two halves of flesh (which will have the skin still attached) into cubes, which you can eat as you would an orange quarter or slice them off into a bowl to which you add lemon or lime juice.
A meal would be a mango and avocado salsa, to which you have added some chile, cilantro, sea salt and lime. But to my mind, one of the finest uses for mangoes is in kulfi, the Indian ice cream. It is made traditionally with malai (milk boiled down to cream) but it can be reasonably faked with evaporated or condensed milk.
Cutting for Stone is the name of a novel I have had languishing on my shelves for a while, unread, and now unreadable due to its being dropped in the bath (although the first chapter is fine and also very compelling so I will press on). I thought the title apt.