Grapefruit is one of my favorite fruits. Incongruously I associate the sweet semi-tropical fruit with the most bitter part of winter. When I was growing up (on a hill farm in central Appalachia), we had crates of the big yellow citruses during winter–an annual gift from some unknown relative. My mom would read long novels while the wind roared outside and we set by the wood stove listening. If my father was home from the oil & gas fields, he would peel grapefruits for us (not that Dad was a roughneck, he was a geologist with poorly organized yet relentless employers). In order for the fruit not to be bitter and tough it is necessary to peel it correctly, which requires patience and deft hands (not only must you strip off the rind, you also have to carefully pull the leathery endocarp away from the juice-filled vesicles). I didn’t master the fruit on my own until I was an adolescent. As an aside, I feel like those evil serrated spoons are cheating…plus they don’t work.
Grapefruit is a human creation—and a comparatively recent one at that. It was first hybridized in Barbados during the 18th century from two very different ancestral citrus fruits–the giant pomelo from Southeast Asia and the Jamaican sweet orange (itself a hybrid fruit with ancient Asian antecedents). A Welsh clergyman, Rev. Griffith Hughes, first documented the tasty new hybrid in the 1750s. Apparently it intrigued and scandalized the English planters (or maybe the Welsh cleric?) to such an extent that it was initially called “the forbidden fruit.” I guess this earns the grapefruit a place with other fruits known as “the forbidden fruit” such as quinces, citrons, figs, apples, and datura (to say nothing of knowledge…or sensuality, or GMOs, or post-humans or other metaphorical forbidden fruit).
Grapefruit trees are shapely evergreen trees which grow to a height of 5–6 meters (16–20 feet). They have beautiful but tiny four-petaled flowers which, when fertilized by bees (or other insects) grow into the large fruits. The name grapefruit originates from the fact that growers thought the heavy clusters of ripe fruit looked like grapes (throughout much of the nineteenth century they were named “shaddocks” after an enigmatic & profligate ship captain who was evidently some sort of Johnny Appleseed of the high seas) . The flesh of grapefruits can be white, yellow, pink, or red. According to farming lore, pink and red grapefruits were of twentieth century origin—the famous “ruby red” grapefruit was patented in 1929. The subsequent search for richer color lead growers to irradiate bud sticks with neutrons in the hope of creating exciting new mutants!
Grapefruits are healthy fruits filled with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and other possibly wholesome phytochemicals (to say nothing of fiber) however they also contain a chemical which inhibits the activity of a human metabolizing enzyme CYP3A4. This not-very-euphonically named enzyme allows the liver and the intestine to break down drugs–so grapefruit are potentially dangerous to people taking certain prescription medicines. According to pharmacologists, more than 40% of drugs can interact with grapefruit! This sort of thing is why biochemistry is so interesting and challenging! Maybe there is a rightful reason grapefruit should be called forbidden fruit…but until the doctor actively forbids it, I am going to go have some more…