Thursday, January 25, 2018

Mystery Fruit

Sometimes it's kind of embarrassing how my brain works.

A friend of mine (Hi Erica!) posted this picture to Facebook, and of course (embarrassment #1) I found it amusing and (embarrassment #2) I responded with a fruit-based pun.

But this is a 17th century painting of a fruit & vegetable seller, so my brain isn't going to let me ignore all the food in it. In short order I've got it open at the highest resolution the meme will allow and unlike a majority of guys my age, my eyes are quickly drawn to (embarrassment #3) this one particular fruit.

There's something about it that looks different from the nearby apples. In fact, it kind of looks like a frickin' tomato.

For those not so into medieval European cooking, here's the thing about tomatoes: they're a new-world food that wasn't available in Europe before around 1500, and weren't commonly eaten until the 1700s. John Gerard mentioned them in his 1597 herbal, but he thought they were poisonous. That means it's a bit unusual to see one depicted in a 17th century painting with a bunch of food.

The resolution of the meme is too low to tell for sure though, so I start looking for a better image. My Google-fu skills quickly reveal that the painting is Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit, by Nathaniel Bacon (c. 1620-5). Google also politely provides me with a much better quality image.

I eagerly zoom in and here's what I see:


That's helpful, kind of, sort of, but ... huh.

I'm pretty sure it's not an apple. The shape is very tomato-like, as is the glossiness. The thing in the middle doesn't look right though. It looks more like the calyx (bottom belly-button like thing) of an apple than either the calyx (top leafy bit near the stem) or stigma (bottom little nubbins) of a tomato. Also if it were the top of the tomato I'd expect some discoloration or cracking around the shoulder.

Another friend (Hi Drake!) suggested it might be a persimmon, which would match the glossiness and shape but not really the color, and again the calyx isn't right. Persimmons have a calyx and stigma more like a tomato.

It's certainly not a medlar - it's not nearly obscene enough.

At the moment I'm still not sure. Maybe it's just an oddly-shaped, wet apple.

The (probably wrong) answer I find most appealing though is that it's a tomato, and that the artist chose to put it into a still-life that would normally be associated with fertility, fecundity, and a bit of eroticism, specifically to provide a touch of hidden peril.

1 comment:

Tomas de Courcy said...

I also thought it was a persimmon, but looking at it more it could just be an oddly shaped apple. We've lost a lot of the varities that were around in the 16th century.

Also, as to Gerard thinking they were poisonous, I don't believe so, it seems that he didn't think they were very tasty, but not that they were poisonous. He does mention that the plant itself smells bad, but I don't see any mention of poison, at least in the 1597 edition.