Have you had every mango?

2020, Jul 28    

Mangoes in India and South Asia more generally take on roughly the same level of intense rivalry and nitpicky epicurean obsession as red wine in the West. There are regional varieties such as the Himayat and Banganapalli which my family swears by. The popular Alphonso and Kesari. The raw mangoes for pickling, rasam mangoes.

Much of this complexity is lost by the time a mango reaches an American grocery store shelf. The logistics of delivering a fragile fruit to an uninterested market mean that the quality is never as you expect. If you’ve only ever had mangoes in America, you’ve not really had mangoes.

The American grocery scene has exploded with heirloom tomatoes in recent years - ugly looking monsters that taste phenomenal. They change what it means to have tomatoes. Far from the Red Delicious-apple style of tomato that looks fantastic but tastes like slightly sour mattress, heirloom tomatoes are bursting with juice and flavor.

Mango, tomato, potato are all convenient taxonomies that hide a fractal complexity. Each of these hides an incredible variety and set of possibilities. In doing so they save us a lot of time and reveal something about our nature. There’s a natural limit to understanding diversity in most people’s minds and lives. In order to earn our daily bread and solve the task in front of us, we cannot constantly be distracted by the infinite nature of the universe. It would be extraordinarily daunting to build a universe every time we want to make apple pie.

A cognitive systems perspective would say we build these platonic ideas of what a tomato should be or what a mango is out of reasonable approximations from a large sample. But the world we live in is extremely curated. We could spend our whole lives taking in samples and still only experience a small portion of the diversity because of all the funnels that cut out the full range of an item. Our models are never really done updating, we always have more to learn about even the smallest things. You can’t do anything, it seems, without first trying everything.