The flight of the kiwi

Via Mashable, I’ve been enjoying these food maps by Caitlin Levin and Henry Hargreaves. (They are also the duo behind a photo of a deep-fried iPad that astonished me in the back of a recent issue of Gastronomica.) Levin and Hargreaves build a sort of faux-topographical map of a country using a food or several foods associated with it. For example, New Zealand: 

New Zealand

Made almost entirely out of kiwis.

Funny story: kiwis aren’t actually native to New Zealand.

I’ve been reading an advance copy of The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy For Cupcakes But Fed Up With Fondue by David Sax. It’s a fun and fascinating read, offering lots of little snapshots of food events and food celebrities, lush descriptions of appetizing merchandise, and a mild stab at theorizing what causes a food trend to take off and what keeps it in circulation. (Answer: the happy coincidence of numerous difficult-to-predict conditions.) My favorite chapter so far is about branding and marketing fruit: because fruit doesn’t keep forever and needs to be moved off shelves, the brand campaign for fruit has to be aggressive and comprehensive, quick and deadly.

Among the colorful characters in the branded fruit marketplace is Frieda Caplan, a woman who joined the male-dominated world of food promotion in the mid-twentieth century. Sax recounts the story, related to him by Caplan’s daughter, of Caplan’s introduction to a fruit that was alternately called the Chinese gooseberry, the Macaque Peach, and the Hairy Bush fruit, among other inauspicious names. This hard, fuzzy, weird little fruit originated in southern China, but was brought to New Zealand and successfully cultivated in the 1930s. As it turns out, they also have a good shelf life, so Caplan bought a couple hundred boxes and sold them all in six months. She then sent her profits back to the New Zealand growers, and told them to work on a better name.
Because the gooseberry was round, brown, and fuzzy, the New Zealand growers renamed the fruit after their national bird, the kiwi.
(Which are flightless. Please excuse the poor taste of my titular pun.)

Armed with a catchier, enticingly exotic name–a no doubt coasting on a midcentury taste for exotic fruits like pineapple and bananas–kiwi sellers and promoters whipped up a campaign to teach consumers when and how to eat kiwis (“everywhere, on everything” is always the ideal answer). Decades later, you have adults like myself who remember being introduced to the fuzzy fruit as a child in the 80s; maybe you, like me, did a class report on the country of New Zealand and learned that one of their better-known exports is the kiwi fruit.

The word “kiwi” is so strongly identified with New Zealand that it is sometimes used to refer to the people as well as the fruit and the bird. So it did not surprise me to see a food map of the country represented entirely with kiwi slices and peels, but it’s interesting to think how much of this association is due to a vigorous midcentury marketing campaign.


One response to “The flight of the kiwi

  1. Pingback: Elsewhere on the Internet: Throwback Thursday | Scenes of Eating·

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