Illustration: Elvis Swift
In Pasadena, California, in the 1970s, my best friend was a lanky girl named Youvet. She knew a lot about the world. She had a boyfriend named Nathaniel, and they would slow-dance to the Commodores. I was this nerd with glasses who attended a white, all-girls private school. She tried to help me get a clue. Youvet had to watch her younger brother Bernard while their mother worked. Bernard was always in trouble.
On the streets of Pasadena, teardrop-shape, apricot-colored fruits fell in soft plops on the sidewalk from tall, bushy trees. We would ride our bikes—banana-seat Schwinns—over the fruits to see who could squish them.
"Don't eat those. They're poisonous!" Bernard cackled. Youvet told him to shut up. "They taste good." She pulled one from a cluster on a tree and ate it. We waited for her to keel over. She survived. So we tried it, too. The fruit was soft and had smooth brown pits in chambers in the center. The taste was a cross between a citrus and an apricot. It was juicy and refreshing on a warm May day, but after that, I steered clear of these fruits, which I eventually learned are called loquats, not sure whether Bernard was right.
Loquats, or Eriobotrya japonica, originated in China, though it is believed that they entered California from Japan as ornamental plants in the 1870s. You see loquat fruits here and there in Pasadena farmers' markets and Asian groceries. But they're rarely cultivated in this country; the soft fruit doesn't keep well, and it's difficult to harvest, growing in clusters high up in the tree. Mainly you find them in abandoned lots, alleyways, and front yards.
After high school, I moved away for many years and then returned to Pasadena when my children were small. There was a loquat tree in the front yard of my son's preschool. I noticed the teacher had a bowl of freshly picked fruit sitting on the table. I remembered Youvet and the weekends of my youth. I couldn't remember the name. "What are those called again? Are they okay to eat?" I asked the teacher. She laughed, "They're loquats and they're delicious." I sat with my son, and we dug right in.