More than just an ingredient for chutney, jam and crumbles, feijoas are an ingredient for social connection too.
This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter The Boil Up.
As I write this from my dining room table, I can hear their ominous thuds. Every sentence typed is punctuated by another green ovoid crashing onto the roof above the kitchen (or the concrete down the side of the house, or the tiles in the garden) as they lob themselves off the neighbour’s tree overhanging the fence line.
A group of three bask at a corner of the garden so impossibly far from where they came from, it’s as if they grew legs and walked there.
Autumn has barely begun and despite divvying up plenty to friends and colleagues my fruit bowl remains stubbornly crammed with feijoas. Most of the year I wait eagerly for feijoa season to start, and yet when that time actually comes my excitement usually gives way to dread and then eventually, defeat.
Once we’ve made as many puddings, syrups and jams as we can manage, the beloved feijoa tends to become associated with words like “surplus”, “overabundance”, “glut” or worse, “onslaught”.
But too many feijoas isn’t a problem that everyone shares, explains Michelle Blau, the general manager of Fair Food, a West Auckland-based food rescue charity that shares fresh ingredients for 5,000 meals each day. “Seven percent of New Zealanders run out of food before the week is up and in our communities, that number is way higher, so we know very acutely just how much hunger is real,” Blau told me. They’re encouraging people to donate surplus feijoas to local food rescue organisations or pop them in local pātaka rather than letting them rot in fruit bowls.
While the vast majority of food charities focus on non-perishables, which are easier to store and cheaper to buy, Fair Food collects and distributes fresh food to charities, community groups, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing.
“We know that a mature feijoa can produce 30kg of fruit – that’s a lot of chutney,” says Blau. “You constantly see them lying on the ground, and for us as food people and as zero-food-waste people it hurts our eyes to see great kai just sitting on the ground.”
For those who deal with an autumnal abundance, it can be easy to forget that not everyone has easy access to a source of feijoas. And while they’re available at the supermarket – and some people even try to hawk them off in community Facebook groups – I think we can all agree that no one should be paying anything, let alone $10 per kilogram, for feijoas in Aotearoa. For that, Blau suggests searching Aotearoa Food Rescue Alliance’s list of food rescue organisations around the country – or, if you’re in Auckland, dropping them at Fair Food’s Avondale hub.
“Within our community, people are having to put so much resource, time and energy into getting enough for lunch every day and getting enough diversity of food and meanwhile, fruit is just literally rotting outside someone’s front yard,” she says. “So if we can help balance the two then that’s a big win for us.”
Food is a physiological necessity, so an outcome of food insecurity that is often overlooked is the social and cultural loss of not being able to access kai. “With shared food being such a big part of how we come together as a culture, when you don’t have any kai you feel whakamā about going to an event or about sending your kids to something,” says Blau.
I talk a lot about the culture surrounding food in The Boil Up, but I’m acutely aware that the cultural significance attached to food isn’t something afforded to everyone. Like all foods, feijoas have a kind of cultural resonance – in their case it’s one that is especially bound up with national identity and community belonging. Being priced out of a kai like that also means being priced out of culture.
Blau sees another untapped potential for the feijoa, or in fact any fruit tree: to become a vessel for community. “People are so shy about knocking on the door and saying, ‘hey, can I pick your tree?’,” she says. All food has the potential to be a connector, but the feijoa offers this in an effortlessly egalitarian and uncommercial type of way. “If people have a tree with kilos and kilos of fruit, and you walk by it every day, and it’s not getting picked, go meet your neighbour.”