Back Burner: Why I’m Afraid of Pears

Hello, dear reader. Just a note to say that all of the original comments were lost in the tragic blog move of 2008 – so remember, if it’s new to you or you’re deeply stirred, feel free to chat it up. Thanks for stopping by!

from February 28, 2008









It’s true.

I’m a little bit afraid of the most painterly fruit – and all this M-Word talk has brought sweet paranoia tumbling back to me like three baskets full of lovely but rotten green ones.

Why, you say? You ask what kind of sane, grown woman doesn’t want to admire a shiny pear?

Well. Let’s hop to another time, years ago, when Josie was but a rosy-cheeked toddler and I ran a dessert company, The Happy Ending, out of our 1929 home.
I’d had the county health department inspect my cleaner-than-restaurants kitchen, and we’d made a few necessary modifications to operate on the level.

One thing we installed was a fairly industrial, high-heat dishwasher with a powerful food grinder. It felt very very solid, very official. It could quietly chew up an entire rump roast, were I to casually throw one in there.

And that thought comforted me as I went about my busy business. It was serious equipment. I thought of the machine as a stainless steel shield, my protector in the new worlds of business and motherhood.

I worked in our tiny kitchen, and it doubled as catering center and family feeder. On any given day you’d see the fruits of both labors: butter cookie trays stacked and cooling in the sun room, Josie’s favorite sweet potatoes browning in the oven, layered hazelnut mocha cakes on the dining room table.

Josie also loved pears, and snacked on them in every form – raw, roasted, pureed, and, depending on the day’s work, occasionally poached in red wine and dotted with vanilla beans. One hotel I worked for required weekly deliveries of pear-and-almond tarts.

So it was a lot of fruit. And I spent many prepping hours standing at my little butcher block table, watching Josie with one eye, tumbling cheerfully over 50-pound flour bags while I peeled, cored, poached, sliced, diced and tarted up a veritable orchard of pears.

There was an odd, controlled chaos between the ganache and the Lego’s, the snack bowls and the meringues, but my kitchen was clean, so clean. So clean that on the day I noticed a slight odor coming from the dishwasher, I was thrown.

“It smells,” I told my husband.

“It’s fine,” he said.

“He said it’s fine,” I’d repeat to Josie, who giggled. Funny daddy. “It SMELLS , but it’s fine. Ugh.”

In 24 hours the faint off-odor in the dishwasher had become a mild stench. I would hold my breath, crack the door, and do a jam-and-slam; that is, jam in the plate, slam the door and run. I would later exhale in the hallway. Soon, Greg was starting to come around

“Yes,” he pronounced one night, two days later, “it smells.”

O Merciful Olfactory Gods! If we can arrive at the golden spot where we agree that something smells, that smell will surely be found. I had seen nothing yet. I’d furtively rattled and prodded the racks, but could not find the source. When the insistent green cloud started spreading out for real, I got bold.

Armed with a flashlight, I swung open the dishwasher door. Oh! I should have had a gas mask. But I went in.

The rotting smell of – of what, of what, a thousand trout guts? old jockstraps in ammonia? – hit me square in the face as I swept the light toward the back. The smell got stronger, and I saw the shadowy outline of a chunk – pears, I thought – down toward the bottom. Blinded, perhaps, by stench and the fact that I was crouched in a wet dark corner of my dishwasher, I did the unthinkable. I reached.

And I poked it, with my finger, and in a frozen instant knew that it was not a pear. Not pear, not pear, not pear! I thought, heart racing. I yanked away at the speed of light, whacking my head as I backed out, sending cartoon stars around my head and the sprayer arm spinning, leftover dish water dripping on both me and the slimy, unknown chunk.

I grabbed the closest tool, some cooking tongs. Summoning every breath of calm, I turned the flashlight back towards what I now knew was death, death in the dishwasher, a dishwasher death chunk.

I moved in, only partially secure that whatever it might be, it was, at least, not moving.

There, stuck between a stainless steel ring and the wet nether regions of the grinder, was a mangled piece of…well, with the shaky light, I could just make out a pointy grayish shape, with a small round…oh my god, ear…and then…an eye. A tiny black fixed bead of an eye, staring straight at me, unmoving.

I should have expired. I should have dropped cold right there on my kitchen floor, but instead I reached in with the tongs. In my career, these particular metal tongs had lovingly browned coq au vin. They had turned peppery steaks and plated buttery parslied new potatoes, but not that day.

That day, guided by my shaking hands, they would perform the ultimate service – a service no kitchen tool ever wants to perform. Today, they would scrape out the remains of – now clearly visible in the kitchen daylight – a waterlogged, festering, three-day old mouse head.

I had poked my naked finger into the squishy entrails of a dead mouse head. Not a pear, I thought, oh, why could it not have been a rotting pear?

The head and the tongs were thrown into a bag, and then tied up in another bag, and then frantically stuffed in the trash. I then sanitized the dishwasher five times and washed my hands for a week, and probably threw out the trash can, too. If I could replace my finger, I would.

I shed no tears for the mouse’s untimely end, only for my tainted finger and the heroically lost tongs. He had scampered into the jaws of death on his own accord. My dishwasher-shield was just doing its job. But…the pears. So sure was I that the death chunk was pear that even today, it’s hard to separate the vision of soaked, torn rodent head from a nicely peeled Bartlett.

If it’s sliced up in green salad with walnuts and blue cheese and vinaigrette, I might overlook it. But no poaching. If that pear is in a soft state, a state that some people adore, and happily eat with vanilla creme anglaise, that’s when I check out.

My dining companions won’t see it at the table, but inside, while they feast on dessert, I will be doing a full-body shudder, remembering the cold, cold surprise of wet, beady-eyed, furry not-pear.