My wife and I sped through the streets of Santa Ana, weaving down side streets and around double-parked cars, in search of the magic house. The one with all the loquats.
Late spring is when Southern California erupts with the small, fuzzy pastel-orange or -yellow fruit. Trees have groaned with their bounty for over a century in places as varied as Compton and Santa Monica, Santa Ana and Pasadena, East Los Angeles and Long Beach. They’re remnants of an era when loquats, not avocados or oranges, were a marquee crop, a sign that the region was a subtropical paradise.
Today, they’re the happiest regional problem we have. Loquats seem to ripen all at once, which sparks a communal race against the clock that sees anyone who has a tree try to get as many as possible before the parrots gorge on them. People dust off their recipe books to tackle all the loquats. Jams. Preserves. Butter. Upside-down cake. Empanadas. Barbecue sauce. Liqueur. Or we just eat them fresh until we can’t stomach them anymore, and then beg neighbors to take away the rapidly browning fruit by the bucketful.
That was the situation my wife and I found ourselves in as we cruised around. The previous day, she had knocked on the door of a stranger’s house whose loquat tree was particularly gigantic and asked if we could grab some. Now, she couldn’t remember where that home was — and all the other loquat trees in the barrio made the quest even harder.
“That one’s not it — the fruits aren’t ready,” she said. Nor that one — too barren. Maybe that one, I offered?
That was a pine.
Finally, we found the house. The tree was at least 20 feet tall and had so many loquats that it glowed like a traffic cone. We set up our equipment: bags, clippers and a rickety ladder. Usually, my wife waits for friends and customers to unload crates of them at her store, a market and deli in downtown Santa Ana. But today, we picked with extra vigor.
We were on a mission to defend the honor of the humble Eriobotrya japonica.
Over the weekend, the popular website Atlas Obscura published a story about loquats with the headline “Los Angeles Is Covered in Delicious Fruit and No One Is Eating It.” The headline was later changed, but it was too late. Foodies and commoners alike in Southern California railed on social media against this insult to our culinary soul.
Many took exception to the author’s assertion that the neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Los Feliz were the Eastside of L.A. (Boyle Heights has something to say about that.) Others rolled their eyes at this latest installment of a newly transplanted East Coaster making a grand pronouncement about the way we live that’s inevitably, laughably wrong.
But the real outrage was the premise of the article itself: No one eats loquats? Says who?
It’s one of the rare fruits in these modern times that we can’t buy year-round at Southern California supermarkets because of how quickly they spoil. So their appearance is a beloved annual ritual — it’s more accessible than the Tournament of Roses, tastier than a grunion run, less messy than jacarandas.
But I was surprised at the level of love Southern California had for the loquat in the wake of the Atlas Obscura article. All of our disparate, divided communities seemingly united to trash the piece — even the “Eastside” hipsters who the reporter claimed had no idea about the fruit.
On Twitter, followers and strangers alike regaled me with their loquat stories. Latinos were surprised to learn that was the English name for the fruits they knew as nísperos, mísperos or nísferos, depending on whether you’re Mexican or Central American. Asians shared photos of Nin Jiom cough syrup derived from loquat leaves. People with roots in New Orleans told me they called the fruits “misbeliefs,” a local mispronunciation of the Italian term for them, nespoli. And Armenians probably have the most evocative name for loquats of them all: nor ashkhar, which translates as “new world.”
All of this was on my mind as my wife tossed loquats down to me as she reached higher and higher. Then it hit me: not just a stray fruit or five, but a realization. Loquats should be the lodestar of Southern California, the thing upon which we model our lives here.
The loquat is an immigrant originally from China but one that spread to many other communities that embraced the fruit as their own. There’s diversity within loquats — the Vista White variety is particularly sweet, while the Golden Nugget type has a crisp tartness. The trees that produce them are hardy — not needing much maintenance or water to fruit well but doing even better with care.
The all-at-once harvest creates instant community, because there’s no way just one person can tackle a loquat canning session. And that so many loquats still fall to the ground and rot shows how much Southern Californians take our good life for granted.
Loquats are far better exemplars of how to live in Southern California than two other fruits that have long dominated the cultural life of the region: avocados and oranges. As delicious as they are, they’re simply not good neighbors.
Both are notorious water guzzlers that need constant care and attention and wither if ignored. You rarely find them on public property the way you do loquats, and people don’t hand them out as freely. Avocados and oranges both have a dark side, too. Our voracious consumption of the former has inspired drug cartels to shake down growers in Mexico. Oranges, meanwhile, became a multimillion-dollar business here on the backs of exploited Mexican laborers like both of my grandfathers, then struck from the industry’s history.
Loquats? The reason so many exist in working-class communities is that the workers who picked them took the large brown seeds back home to sprout their own trees.
My wife and I left the Santa Ana house with a 99 Ranch Market bag full of loquats so ripe it seemed they would burst if you just looked at them. We dropped them off at her store, but I made sure to keep one for myself to enjoy in our frontyard.
Biting into its mildly sweet flesh was like an early summer day: cooling, comforting, perfect. I spit out the seed, then went to check on our loquat seedling, which has grown a few new leaves these last couple of weeks. In a land where we chuck out yesterday’s treasures with little thought, loquats spring eternal.