Most of us know fruit cocktail as the little diced fruit that comes out of a can. You can probably name the ingredients with your eyes closed: colored cherries, green grapes, peaches, pears and pineapple. Fruit cocktail was always my mother’s favorite way to end a meal--always out of a can and preferably Del Monte, the brand she discovered when she came to America. She mixed the canned fruit with diced fresh apples, oranges, strawberries and peaches and proudly called the end result dessert.
As children, opening the cans of fruit cocktail was our daily kitchen chore. We had an electric can opener that came with the house we were renting in Pasadena (it took us a while to figure out what it was for, but when we finally did we fought for our turns to open cans). Mother served her fruit cocktail in a big glass punch bowl she bought at the flea market. The bowl came with eight matching glasses.
The colored cherries disappeared before ever reaching the dinner table.
Mother made sure every grain of rice was eaten out of our rice bowls before she rewarded us with dessert. We never got tired of fruit cocktail even though she served it almost every day. Sometimes there were leftovers of bruised bananas and apples floating in the opaque syrup. It was my mother who took a spoon to finish them off. She then drank the syrup like a martini.
When my family was transferred back to Japan, the punch bowl along with the matching glasses got shipped back and arrived without casualty. In no time, Mother found canned fruit cocktail at the market, but she experienced two problems when serving the dessert.
First, her punch bowl was too big for a Japanese refrigerator. Whenever she made fruit cocktail, it had to stay out at room temperature. This was fine in Tokyo’s freezing winters but dangerous in the humid summer, when the fruit cocktail turned warm and strange bubbles appeared on the surface.
Second, she kept making the same recipe following the same portions even after her five children had moved out of the house. The big bowl of fruit cocktail would sit in the living room on the coffee table stoically waiting for a child to return from America or for a neighbor or relative to visit.
Once you set foot in my parents’ house, you could not leave without a helping or two of her famous fruit cocktail--now known across the Pacific. From thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, I pictured my parents’ coffee table sticky from the spill of heavy syrup, the bowl of browned warm fruit gurgling on the table and the reluctant guest eating my mother’s favorite dessert. Thus, I developed a love-hate relationship with fruit cocktail.
Last month, I flew back to Tokyo to visit my mother, who had been in the hospital. During the flight, I got my dinner tray and saw a miniature cup of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail. I picked up the cup and slowly pealed the seal. A colored cherry smiled at me like a long-lost friend. When I took a spoonful of fruit, suddenly I started to cry.
Sakai is author of “The Poetical Pursuit of Food” (Clarkson Potter, 1986).