Bringing Durian Home


Both romanticized and demonized in Hollywood, the American South is generally a quiet, quaint region with beautiful architecture, big manicured lawns, and a culture all it's own."Yes" and "no" are always paired with "sir" or "ma'am", and everything is just darling. Except possibly, durian.

We'd left Southeast Asia for the Southeast of the United States, traditionally the most socially conservative, republican and rural part of the country. Often the butt of redneck jokes, the South has a bad rap as being polite to a fault and close minded to other cultures and ways of doing things. A durian, with it's exotically offensive smell, is not something one would expect to find in either of the Carolinas. Just because Rob and I were visiting the South for Christmas didn't mean we could leave behind our durian fetish. It was time to share our passion with the family, who had never heard of durian before our wild adventure. It would be an interesting experiment - was it possible that our family would actually like durian?


Rob was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and lived most of his life in the mountains of North Carolina without ever developing that cute southern drawl (something I've told him to work on). He still has grandparents in both states, so we had two sets of family to expose to durian. Just days before Christmas we left the swampy heat of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and flew across the globe to the Blue Ridge Mountains, an enclave of mountain people with a proud history and an independent streak. I can only guess that this is where Rob developed his own radical personality that puts crazy ideas in his head, like traveling the world to eat durian.

His North Carolina grandparents live in the perfect setting for a Hallmark Christmas. Set deep in what used to be a Christmas tree farm, their house is a two-story wooden cabin with smoke curling out of the fireplace and Christmas music pouring out of the nearby speakers. It's quiet in the style of a Robert Frost poem. One afternoon, the family gathered for the grand "durian cracking open." The durian, a frozen Thai Monthong, was procured from one of three Asian markets in Asheville, a 35-minute drive away.

Frozen durian
Since we were worried about smelling up the kitchen, we considered opening it in the freezing cold garage. We were saved the discomfort when the half-frozen, three-pound monstrosity met the nose of approval, grandma, who announced with surprise, "that barely smells at all." It was true, this little spike ball had scarcely any odor. Rob and I groaned, afraid it would be watery and tasteless.

Although covered in fine shards of ice, the flesh was soft like ice cream. The flavor was mild, but it was still there - a bit of chocolatey sweet sulfur. While it wasn't great, it also wasn't bad (in our opinion), but it was not very popular with the family. Rob's youngest cousins refused to taste it. One gagged and spit out her polite pinch. His uncle made a face like we were handing him a live sea urchin to swallow. Then Rob's grandfather took a pod and courageously placed the entire thing in his mouth, willing to give it a good try. After swishing it around and removing the seed, he decreed that it was not bad, and actually pretty good. He even liked it enough that he took another piece, saying it tasted like sweet, spring onions.

Rob and his Dads

Rob and I happily ate what remained of that durian, leaving one more to take to South Carolina - only a three hour drive but a world away. South Carolina is more southern than North Carolina, and I don't mean only geographically. I love their strong local culture, but it explains why Rob hovered nervously while I lay belly down on the cold cement snapping photos of the durian in front of his grandmother's beautiful white-pillared house. He was worried I might attract attention from the neighbors and embarrass grandma.

We had nearly finished the photo shoot when we heard a loud Malaysian voice behind us. "Is that durian?" We whirled around, wondering if our brains were creating Malaysia-philic hallucinations. A white van had stopped on the otherwise empty street, and it's two passengers were staring with equal disbelief at the spiky fruit still sitting on the lawn. Sharon was born in Johor but married a Carolina boy. They were out for a scenic drive of South Carolina's tiny, picturesque rural towns and were floored to see a durian sitting in front of the old southern-style house. We were a bit floored to see them.


Of course, we had to talk about this strange intersection of worlds. They took pictures of the durian with that contradictory backdrop while Sharon told us about an uncle in Johor who had personally tasted the legendary elephant drop durian we were searching for last July. Unable to find anyone with reliable information, we had given it up as myth - and here, in South Carolina of all places, we found a clue.

Sharing durian with family was a great way to finish the year and let things come full circle. Our family was remarkably open and good-natured about letting us bring a stink-fruit into their lives and homes, and, in spite of the regional stereotype, enjoyed trying something new. Rob's grandpa even liked it! We really enjoyed sharing durian with them, and I think it helped put all we've done in perspective in a way that couldn't have happened if we'd stayed in Asia (as tempting as that was).  Returning to familiar places and situations highlighted the myriad ways we have grown and changed in pursuit of durian and just how far our obsession goes. Pretty far. For the King of Fruits, I think that's fair.

Thanks to our families for their support and willingness to put up with durian. We love you! 



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1 comment:

  1. i can picture grandma getting embarrassed at you layin on lawn to photo.....i love grandpa for his adventurous way of eating that durian in one bite.

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