All that said I don’t think I’ve ever let philosophical objections stop me from ordering dessert before, and I certainly wasn’t about to start in a little restaurant in the city of Campeche in the Yucatán Peninsula, when I saw sapote sorbet on the menu.
Specifically it was a “degustación” of three sapote sorbets. Sapote is a generic term for a variety of squishy and sweet fruits native to Latin America – this plate had the dark, prune-like, chocolatey sapote negro, the reddish pink, sweet potato-esque mamey sapote in the middle, and the golden sapote chico, which tastes like caramel, dates and honey, the inside of a Whopper and all things wonderful in the world, and Manilkara zapota, it is the best sapote of all the sapotes.
I spent a childhood’s worth of summers around the dining table in my grandparents’ house in Chennai, drinking tea and eating banana chips and more tropical fruits than I knew what to do with. There were Alphonso mangoes, if you haven’t had one before I strongly suggest you never do because it will permanently ruin you for all other mangoes in the world, and mangosteens, whose white, shiny insides look a little suspicious but taste like perfume in the best possible way, and custard apples, high-effort, high-reward, filled with black seeds that you have to individually suck the ice-creamy pulp off. And there were sapotes, always the golden sapote chico. In Tamil it’s called sapota and the word comes from the Nahuatl tzapotl which means that around the table in Chennai we were all almost speaking Nahuatl without even knowing it, so many years before I ever knew I’d be living in Mexico.
And so I was in this restaurant in Campeche – I ordered the Yucatán specialty panuchos for dinner, tortillas stuffed with beans and then fried and topped with meat, if you’re normal, or with sautéed jamaica (hibiscus flowers) if you’re me. And then the sapote sorbet. I ate the negro first, I didn’t even know that this dark, wine like fruit existed before the sorbet appeared on my plate. Then I ate the mamey, which I first learned about in an ice cream shop in Little Michoacán in Redwood City where the owner patiently sat down and explained to me every single one of the flavors I’d never heard of before, and I ordered a mamey popsicle based mostly on the color and fell immediately in love. And then the sapote chico, and as soon as I tasted it, I was transported back to my grandparents’ house in Chennai eating a straight-from-the-freezer sapota. The waitress pointed to it and told me “that one’s my favorite!” and I agreed. She didn’t know the half of it.
When I got the call that my grandmother had passed away I was in a hotel bar in Ottawa. If this were fiction someone would be saying – “give us a break – hotel bar as metaphor for “far away from home” is the world’s biggest cliché. Mom was in India already, and dad got on the first flight there. Meanwhile I was flying back to Mexico the next day and would then be stuck there unable to leave the country. I had no idea what to do with myself, but what I did have were spring break plans that my friend Emily and I made weeks ago, and a suspicion that I should keep myself busy. So I flew down to the Yucatán.
Emily and I flew out of Mexico City at 10:30 PM and landed in the small coastal city of Ciudad del Carmen at midnight. We got off the plane to a blanket of air thick with heat and humidity and the peculiar smell of jet fuel and ocean and the bug spray we hastily slathered on before deplaning.
As it happens the fastest way from San Francisco to Chennai is on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, landing in Chennai at 12:30 AM. You get off the plane and the air is thick with heat and humidity and it smells of jet fuel and ocean and the bug spray you hastily slather on before deplaning. Even though it would be almost two in the morning by the time we went through immigration and picked up our suitcases my grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins would always be there to greet us and drive us home, where even though it was past two in the morning by the time we reached home, my grandma would always be waiting for us.
In Ciudad del Carmen our Airbnb host texted to tell me that a taxi would be too expensive at midnight and he offered to pick us up at the airport. We piled our suitcases into his car and arrived at the room he had for us – whitewashed walls, an air conditioner and a colorful bedspread, and I texted my mom a picture of it to show her that I’d reached, but also to see if she was thinking what I was thinking, and her reply text soon confirmed she was: “Are you sure you’re not in Chennai with me? That looks just like our room here!”
We slept, woke up, walked along the beach and then took the bus for a couple of hours driving up the coast to reach the colorful cities of Campeche, home of the aforementioned sapote sorbet, and then on to our last stop, Mérida, the capital city of the Yucatán with all its colorful agave-baron mansions.
It was 97 degrees the whole time, a change from the below-freezing weather I’d been in two days before attending a conference in Canada. I was not prepared for Canada. I had never felt so cold in all my life. I did not know till then that it was possible to lose sensation in your knees. I wore several layers of clothing and was still shivering and miserably cold.
Growing up in the Bay Area, on the cold days, the car would frost over and my dad would scrape off the ice on the windshield before driving me to school. He’d get into the car, crank up the heat, and grumble “I’m from Chennai. I am not made for this.”
For a geneticist, his statement presents an interesting point to ponder – What are we made for? There are some studies that show that thousands of years of living in the heat or cold have led some people to develop adaptations to their climate. There is also a history of people perverting ideas like this to justify some truly ghastly things, like slavery. It’s dangerous and reductive to draw any hasty conclusions about where our genes come from and what that might mean about us, so in my lab we try to carefully and methodically answer exactly these questions. Part of the way to do that without being racist is by admitting that we really know very little about all of this.
And so I can hypothesize to say that maybe it was the South Indian in me that makes up my Californian genome, maybe it was the melanin that everyone can tell I inherited from my grandmother that came through for me keeping me breezy and sunburn-free in the blazing sticky heat of the Yucatán. But maybe it was just the airy, full-coverage cotton clothes I bought the last time I visited my grandparents, and my own cells’ memories of summers spent in Chennai where it was much hotter than California. You can’t casually ascribe to genetics what might be easily explained by things happening outside your cells’ nuclei.
But whatever it was, nurture or nature, genes or environment, I left the Yucatán never quite having shaken the feeling that I had been there before. For the record, this was my first trip there. But things had fallen apart an ocean away with my grandmother’s passing – I wasn’t there – I couldn’t be there, but at least where I was I still had sunshine, and sapotes, and as I discovered those helped me through.
(Our last night in Mérida, as it happens in some magical nights in México, the elderly couples came out to the plaza to dance.)