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Pear: a Perry Classy Fruit

By Audrey Stallsmith

pyrus communis

"I say! I suppose," with a jerk, "you have sometimes plucked a pear before it was ripe, Master Copperfield?"

"I suppose I have," I replied.

"I did that last night," said Uriah; "but it'll ripen yet! It only wants attending to. I can wait!"

Profuse in his farewells, he got down again as the coachman got up. For anything I know, he was eating something to keep the raw morning air out; but he made motions with his mouth as if the pear were ripe already, and he were smacking his lips over it.

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

In the United States the pear has always been overshadowed by another fruit. Nobody speaks of something being "as American as pear pie," after all, and there was--as far as I know--no Johnny Pearseed!

This may be due to the fact that the first pyrus trees imported to this country suffered terribly from fire blight. Or it could be blamed on the fact that the pear is what John Heinerman calls an "aristocratic" fruit.

In a nation which has always fought hard to keep itself free of a peerage, that may have been enough to doom the poor pome! In The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder quotes Thoreau, who pointed out that pears "are named after emperors and kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses. I fear I shall have to wait till we get to Pears with American names which a Republican can swallow."

Wilder seems to agree, adding, "Nor is the Pear the friendly tree that we deem the Apple. It has not its kindly generous spread, giving grateful shade to tired man and ruminating beast, and curving its boughs to fit the forms of children; it is a stiff and upright tree growing naturally in a self-conscious pyramid, proud and aloof."

I am a little skeptical about all this, since I have never seen anything particularly highfalutin' about pears myself. And, fortunately, growers were able to overcome the fire blight problem by crossing European types with the more resistant--though more thorny and gritty--Japanese variety, pyrus serotina (AKA "sand pear").

In fact, here in rural western Pennsylvania, the pear was until quite recently a popular canning fruit. And, in the Language of Flowers the pear and its tree stand respectively for down-home "affection" and "comfort." Its fall from fashion is probably actually attributable to the fact that even country people don't do much canning anymore.

I must admit, however, that Wilder had a point when she asserted that the fragrance of the tree's blossoms is "not agreeable. Sniffing them you quickly pierce the light surface sweetness and reach something mawkish, almost fetid." Though still very pretty, they're a bit plainer than apple blossoms as well, since they frequently lack the touch of pink.

Although, like most Americans, I prefer the taste of apples, I've found that pears can also be delicious if they're fully ripe. Since they are generally picked and shipped while they are still green, they should be allowed to soften and mellow a bit before they are consumed.

There was, among the ancients, an idea that the fruits were somewhat toxic when eaten raw. A 16th-century manuscript warns that "Peres causeth ye colyck passion in ye bowlles." And Culpeper asserts pears "that are hard and sour do. . .bind the belly." Years ago, a child hereabouts was supposed to have died from eating too many of the unripe fruits. But the same sort of "colic" could, I suspect, have been caused by green apples too.

These days, pears are actually considered one of the most easily digested foods. Heinerman recommends them (along with their relative, the quince) "as a soothing and strengthening tonic for delicate digestive systems. . ." They are one of the few foods that are completely non-allergenic, and their low glycemic index makes them ideal for diabetics. Pears are also a good source of potassium and antioxidants.

Pliny the Elder called varieties that produced the sweetest fruits but weren't good keepers "proud" pears, and varieties that stored well but tasted best cooked "winter" types. The Seckel would probably be considered a "proud" pear, while the Kieffer would be a "winter." The Bartlett, on the other hand, may be the best all-around variety.

It was actually developed by British schoolmaster John Stair, but a Massachusetts nurseryman, Enoch Bartlett, chose to name the pear after himself. Much earlier, some British monks had also developed the Wardon type. So, when Shakespeare refers to "Warden pies," we can probably assume that he meant some sort of pear pastries.

The British even found a good use for the less desirable pears. They crushed them to make a fermented "cider" called perry. Ironically enough what one writer described as "sharp and shrewish Pears" (AKA "choke" pears) worked best for this purpose, while the dessert varieties just tasted flat.

I'm not familiar with perry, but my parents frequently added sweet pears to our apple cider to make it a little less acidic. The British, on the other hand, sometimes added crabapples to perry to make it more acidic!

Although I haven't frequently cooked with pears, I recall that I did once make a kind of "upside-down-cake" that involved the fruit and gingerbread. It was, if I do say so myself, delectable! Now, if I can just find a recipe for Wardon pie. . .

Note: Pyrus communis image is from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Library.