When I found the book Durio: A Bibliographic Review mid-way through our Year of Durian, I felt like I had hit the mother lode. For the rest of our trip, this book guided and supported my research efforts. I immediately tried to reach out to author Michael Brown and find out just who else would devote a crazy amount of time and effort to Durian, but was unable to find him. Thanks to a tip by a reader, I was finally able to contact him and find out just who is the man behind the Greatest Durian Book of All Time (or at least until mine). And does he like durian?
Durio: A Bibliographic Review is a compilation of more than 1,200 studies and reports on durian dating from the 16th century until the book was published in 1997. It’s a dense, chewy read that really crams the data into 126 pages, plus an extra 60 pages just listing the studies. It’s got everything you could ever even wonder about durian – from chemical make-up and medicinal uses to its economic importance, ecological niche, pollination mechanisms, tree structure, taxonomic history, and studies looking at how best to care for the trees. The number of topics and resources is immense, slightly overwhelming, and very exciting to fruit nerds like me.
Here’s a short interview with Michael Brown.
|Brown as a graduate student in Malaysia
Year of the Durian: When
did you taste your first durian? What were your first impressions?
Michael Brown: I first remember seeing durians in Chinatown when I lived in Montreal in
the late 1980s. I was working on my bachelor’s degree at the time. I
can’t recall if I tried one at that time, probably not, as I did not
have a lot of extra cash. When I moved to Ontario for graduate school, I
hosted a “Bring your own tropical fruit” party. I purchased one for the
event. I kind of recall concluding that it was scarcely edible. It
was a couple of days after that a professor in the department gave me a
copy of a journal article about durian fruits to read.
What about the journal article particularly struck you as strange or exciting?
Every aspect of the durian tree seemed unusual. It only flowers at
night, it is pollinated by bats, it has a weird model of plant
architecture, so the trees kind of look odd. The flowers and fruits grow
directly off the side of large branches, and in some species off the
trunk, rather than at the tips of the branches. Even the leaves are
weird. I think what struck me was a reference at the end of the paper to
an article entitled “The durian theory of the origin of the modern
tree.” I knew at once I really wanted to read that.
How many years did it take you to compile all those studies?
It took about 6 or 7 years to compile all of the studies I used as the
basis of my book. There was no real internet or even email for most of
that time, so things moved slower and materials were harder to locate.
Articles were acquired by laborious sending of mail to various places
around the world, and hundreds of inter-library loans. Many research
reports on durian are sadly published in enormously obscure journals,
really limiting access to them, or even knowledge of their existence. I
had a good friend who worked in the same lab as me, but desired to go
into a career in library science who really helped me get the ball
Was there any aspect of durian that you particularly enjoyed reading or compiling information about?
Several aspects of durians are intriguing to me. The physiology of the
seeds was my primary interest long ago. There is no way to store these
seeds, they germinate immediately, or they die. This is true of many
rare and endangered rainforest species. This topic needs further study.
The research on the medical effects of durian and alcoholic mixtures is hilarious, that was pure entertainment.
I was particularly fascinated by E.J.H. Corner’s “durian” theory, which
suggests that the fruit of primitive flowering plants was probably
somewhat durian-like in nature (large, spiny, dehiscent, with large
seeds with a bright colored fleshy aril). E.J.H. Corner himself turned
out to be equally as fascinating. He crafted his infamous durian theory
during the war, while held captive by the Japanese at the Singapore
Botanic Gardens, then published it in 1949. I visited him in 1991 at his
house outside Cambridge. We had lunch and a fascinating conversation.
What did your colleagues think about your durian focus? Did you end up sharing any durian with them?
I think mostly (and thankfully) they generally tolerated it. I do recall
the secretarial staff of the botany department complaining about the
smell one day and going home early.
Do you find it strange that certain aspects have not been studied more, such as the interaction of alcohol and durian?
Well, to be honest, not really. There is nothing behind that myth except
misunderstanding. In my experience, there are plenty of South East
Asians that drink, and also plenty of them that eat durians, so if an
issue existed, even a minor one, I would expect hospitals to be filling
up pretty fast. The scarcity of victims speaks pretty loudly.
The seeds may have some medicinal qualities that should be studied.
The flowers are quite interesting, and deserve more study. I find it
fascinating that the flowers open at sundown, but by the next morning,
the petals and stamens have completely abscised and fallen to the
ground. You can pick the pieces off the ground and they still appear
quite fresh. There is some interesting biology behind that kind of quick
abscission process I am sure.
Based on your biochemical background, can you think of any reasons
why the combination of alcohol and durian might sometimes cause death?
What about the mechanism behind “heaty” sensations after eating or
raised blood pressure?
I think it never causes death. The one recorded medical case is so
poorly described that I think nothing reliable can be deduced from it.
If anything, the woman in question was a chronic alcoholic, with a
ruptured pancreas. The durian fruit maybe did her in. Maybe… but
possibly a box of cheerios would have had the same effect. Durian is
very rich in carbs and fat. I think that alone might explain any
sensations experienced after eating one or more of them.
(For more about this topic, check out our Alcohol and Durian: A Deadly Mix?)
Please describe your favorite type of durian.
Someone once described durians to me as being like cheese. The sweeter
Thai durians are easier to like and appeal to more people, sort of like
the nasty American cheese that goes on hamburgers, but the Malay durians
are like fine French cheese; not for the uninitiated, but once you are
used to them, there is no going back.
No Malay durians to be found in Arizona though, so I would have to admit
I never really got used to them, and I prefer the Thai ones.
Do you ever buy durian or travel to eat durian?
You cannot find fresh durian in Phoenix. Several local stores have whole
frozen fruits periodically throughout the year. Freezing them seems to
change the texture a bit, so I don’t enjoy those as much. Our IT guy is
Vietnamese, and likes durian fruit in any form. He occasionally brings
one to work to torment the other people here I suspect. We ate some
durian jam sandwiches together last week. I would have to report that
they were not altogether good…
I have unfortunately not had the occasion to return to South East Asia
since the publication of my book, although I have had the opportunity to
travel to many other places, so it would be wrong to complain, but I
will definitely go back to Malaysia again one day, it is the most
beautiful place I have ever been.
What are you working on now?
I am trying to bring high school biology into the 21st century. I taught
high school for several years, which I enjoyed, but education is in a
horrible state, for a multitude of reasons, and having a real impact is,
as an individual person, impossible. Text books for example, do not
seem to have changed much in content since I was in high school, yet
biological knowledge has doubled at least twice since I graduated. The
average text book is weighed down by trying to please government content
review panels, and has morphed into something that appeals to, or
creates people with short attention spans. I think it is no longer very
useful for teaching, educating, or providing inspiration or motivation
for students to want to continue their studies. So, with that goal in
mind, I am working to help create a cool new 21st century eBook. It will
hopefully be a gamechanger.
Does durian ever show up in your material for high schoolers?
Durians appeared in an ecological animation we designed for the State of
Texas. The state standard was to show the levels of organization in
ecosystems from species to biomes. I started with a durian tree in
Borneo and worked up from there 🙂