ripe, riper, ripest

ripe organic Bartlett pears in bowl at windowsill

After working in an elementary school for over a year now, I can testify that Portland Public Schools are trying (via a USDA-funded program) to make kids eat more raw fruits and vegetables. In addition to what's served at breakfast and lunch, the kids also are given a fruit or veggie snack in the late morning, delivered, at least at our school, by the special-needs kids in a blue bag hung from the classroom doors: plums, baggies of grapes, tangerines, whole pears, apples, jicama slices, baby carrots, even occasionally something the children have never seen before. Teacher, is this an apple or a pear? This is progress from my own elementary-school days of spaghetti and canned khaki-green beans (much of which was at least prepared in-house) and certainly progress from the 1980's when ketchup became a vegetable and the 1990's when kids were eating fast-food and vending-machine food at school.
Unfortunately, much of what I see the kids eating now—in other words, our taxpayer money—ends up in the garbage. One, the kids aren't given enough time to eat their meals or snacks because the school schedule is so tight. Sure, most of these kids are getting a free breakfast, but they usually have only 10 minutes or less to eat it (!). And they're eating lunch before rushing out to recess. Compare this study on the significant nutritional and economic benefits of serving school lunch after recess rather than before to reports of French children who eat lengthy, multicourse handmade meals at school with napkins and silverware like civilized people, rather than our processed, rapidly gobbled finger foods. (The cafeteria mess at work last year in the after-school program after a three o'clock "dinner" of fried chicken, lettuce, and orange quarters would have to be seen to be believed.) Two, American kids have become notoriously picky. Raisins? Ew. Almonds? Blech. Lettuce? That's for rabbits! Three, servings can be too large. For example, most six-year-olds can't eat a whole pear for a snack. And four, the fruit is usually not ripe. Sorry, kids: only apples and Asian pears are supposed to be crunchy. Let's go wash off that tooth you just lost.

ripe organic Bartlett pears

Americans have mostly forgotten what ripe fruit tastes like—fruit so juicy it drips down the chin, soft and sweet along the tongue. Ripe fruit is too difficult for transporters and commercial kitchens to handle because it tends to bruise or otherwise fall apart. On the rare occasion I eat out, I hardly ever order a dish that comes with fresh fruit because, most of the time, the melon will be rock-hard and taste like moldy cardboard, the apples will taste like citric acid (used to preserve their color), and everything will need to be sawed on with a knife.

So because it's almost impossible to buy ripe fruit, one must develop patience and plan ahead. Go ahead and purchase those hard green Bartlett pears. Just don't eat them. Wait. Put them in a favorite bowl and watch their colors change over the week like autumn leaves, turning from green to gold. Then when the pears are ripe—yellow, with a softer give to the skin, a hint of puckering at the stem, and maybe a rosy blush—store them in a pretty bowl in the fridge. (Beware, though, that perfect ripeness is a fine line: wait too long and they'll start rotting at the core.) I use my fall-and-winter pears mostly in morning soy-milk smoothies and oatmeal but also sliced as an after-dinner dessert.

ripe, blushed organic Bartlett pears

Waiting for ripeness—fruit you actually look forward to eating—means if you want to eat seasonal fruit like pears this weekend, you will have bought them last weekend. Ripeness requires rotation. Keep the new set of fruit developing on the counter and the ripe ones in the fridge, ready to savor. Meanwhile, sadly, schoolkids and most everyone else will continue to believe that pears are green and crunchy.

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