The Trouble with Mangoes

Sep 20, 2013

Credit Credit: Amy Bennett Williams

Many people either have or can develop an allergic reaction to the skin of mangoes. News Press essayist Amy Bennett Williams is among them, but she’s also passionate about the fruit.

You'd think that after more than two decades of life in the subtropics, I'd know better.

But when it comes to mangoes, I have a big ol' blind spot, and it invariably gets me into trouble — trouble I'm trying very hard not to scratch, because it'll only make it infinitely worse.

Yes, I know well that mangoes are first cousins to poison ivy, that even a smudge of their sticky sap on bare skin creates angry, flaming welts that itch with sleep-robbing ferocity.

That's why I was trying to be careful.

Not trying hard enough, it turns out.

Because our little corner of Alva is too cold to grow mangoes, and because I'm a little on the cheap side, when they're in season locally, I head out hunting and gathering.

Over the years, I've developed a route, a collection of pinpoints on my mental map: parking lots and medians, sidewalks and gutters — mostly in old neighborhoods.

My rules are simple: only windfalls and only from public property.

My first and favorite stop is the Fort Myers Cemetery.

Say what you will about Southwest Florida, if ever I had to produce a single piece of evidence of this region's singularly eccentric excellence, I'd offer our cemeteries' edible landscaping.

Fruit flourishing in graveyards? Yep, all over. I may never know why, but I think it's an utterly inspired practice and I can't think of a single local cemetery that doesn't have a few culinary plantings, even if they're just some Surinam cherry bushes.

For years, huge, sweet Seminole pumpkins have grown on vines that ramble all over the Buckingham Cemetery.

Orange groves flank both sides of the road leading to the Alva Cemetery, rendering the approach an ethereal experience in blossom time.

There's a Meyer lemon tree at the Ortona Cemetery that drops huge, golden fruit for months at a time.

And in addition to a tangerine tree or two, several weathered mangoes grace the Fort Myers Cemetery.

On warm summer mornings, the scent of their fallen fruit rises so thickly you can almost see it shimmering in the still air: sweetly turpentiney musk with as many colors as the fruit itself.

Because they're tall trees, and because they grow next to the blacktopped roadway, most of the mangoes splatter when they hit the ground. Not all of them do, though, and those were the ones I was seeking last week. I had some salsa in mind, a recipe I've refined over the years that calls for sweet onions, lime juice and hot red peppers.

My son, Nash, was with me, but I did the collecting — after all, why expose a little kid to the potential perils of mango sap?

After I'd gathered a few relatively unblemished specimens (and scraped up a couple of squashier ones), the fragrance — and the temptation — was all but overwhelming.

After all, I reasoned, one of the mangoes was in such bad shape it had to be eaten right away — it'd never stand the ride home.

So, being careful with the skin, I peeled it, offered Nash the most solid portion, then half-squeezed, half-poured the more liquified flesh into my mouth.

After closing my eyes for a quick communion with the divine, I wiped my face off and we headed out.

The twinges began about an hour later, developing into an insanely itchy patch in the corner of my mouth that I've been doing my best to ignore for the last several days.

It's not very big — thank goodness — and to the untrained eye, I hope, it resembles a cold sore, or perhaps a nasty case of chapped lips.

Even so, I consider it a small price to pay for one of Southwest Florida's sublime pleasures.

And, I admit a bit smugly, I got off much easier this year than I did last year, when I headed out on my mango-gathering expedition in military-style cargo pants.

I stuffed the pockets — fore, aft and on the sides — with every mango I could find.

When I was done, their sap had leaked through the fabric of all the pockets, soaking me to the skin.

You can imagine, can't you?

On second thought, maybe it's better you don't.