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21 august 2022

The first chapter or two of Constance Kirker & Mary Newman's Coconut made me a bit queasy. Not the writing or the illustrations; they are fine. But the topic itself. Coconut is one of my two food aversions (the other is cole slaw). For a while, imagining the coconut dishes the authors describe had me skirting nausea.

Let me elaborate on my hatred of coconut. It is not an allergy or an adverse reaction; coconut does me no harm (contrast dairy, which I love but does not love me). Nor is mine a mere dislike. I have foods that aren't favorites – fennel, horseradish – but if served them I can make the effort and even be persuaded by the preparation. I do not object intellectually or emotionally to coconut, the way I do increasingly to red meat. Coconut has its environmental costs, as a neocolonial monoculture, but is probably better than a lot of other foods in ethical terms.

No, I just think coconut is horrible. And I am getting worse on the subject. For many years, I distinguished between sweet coconut (which I have always hated) and savory, which I could enjoy as fully-pureed coconut milk in curries. Much of this was texture. Grated, desiccated, sweetened coconut is, to me, like unchewable shredded paper. But I also recoil from the taste – something soapy, something always-already-rancid. As coconut oil seeps into more and more processed foods, I find myself detecting its flavor more and more and being revulsed; I don't much like coconut milk anymore either. This may have something to do with my dysosmia, or it may just be that I am a crank.

And really, the coconut sweets of my childhood were repulsive. Macaroons, Mounds bars, random clumps of jagged junk, cakes and pies onto which heaps of grated coconut were scattered like insipid, bleached-out pencil-sharpener shavings. Most monstrous of all were red-white-and-green bars of candied coconut, doused in some chemical brew that purported to be watermelon flavor, with a gritty mouthfeel and a corrosive aftertaste. Did nobody think of the children?

Coconut in its more natural state, as Kirker and Newman observe, is a far more beneficial staple than its bizarre American candy avatars. Coconut provides water, oil, fiber, and other nutrients. It keeps and travels well. It grows lavishly, though only in the tropics; in the United States, coconut can only be grown in Hawaii and in South Florida.

First cultivated in Oceania and in the "Indian Ocean basin" (33), coconut spread laterally around the world to dominate many tropical cuisines and lifeways. This makes Coconut a truly global history. Kirker and Newman start in southeast Asia and China and follow the coconut east and west, to document coconut cuisines from Polynesia around the globe to the Caribbean.

The savory/sweet duo obtains almost everywhere coconut has traveled. While Americans and Europeans tend to see coconut as a dessert ingredient, Asian, African, and Latin American cuisines make use of coconut in curried main courses as well as a panoply of sweets.

Almost all the recipes in Coconut are for sweets: macaroons, cream pies, cake, brownies. But in the text proper they mention Thai massaman and Indonesian rendang curries, almost inspiring me to get out to a restaurant and see if I can re-acquire a tolerance for savory coconut dishes. My squeamishness means that I am missing out on a large category of great global food.

Kirker, Constance L., and Mary Newman. Coconut: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2022.