Unforbidden Fruit

No reader question this week, Table Manners fans: Helena has her own etiquette dilemma.

In California, you often see fruit trees weighed down with plums or lemons or the like, obviously producing much more bounty than their owners can possibly consume. I live in an apartment without so much as a window box, and the sight always fills me with envy. It also makes me wonder: Could there be a polite way to ask for some of it? If so, it would be a win-win situation: You can absolve your neighbors’ guilt over the fact that they’re letting their fruit rot on the ground, while scoring delicious, free produce.

I approached David Burns for advice. Burns is cofounder of Fallen Fruit, an LA-based group that creates maps of fruit trees in public space. Burns stoked my lust for free fruit with descriptions of the improvised preserves the Fallen Fruiters make in their “Public Jam” project, with flavors like lavender-fig-lemon and basil-guava. According to Burns, if a tree extends onto public property, like the sidewalk, it’s legal to pick from that part of it. (Exact laws vary by municipality.) But it’s a better idea to knock on the owner’s door and ask permission. “Half the time they invite us inside to pick the fruit,” he says.

On the advice of Burns, I also decided to try posting an ad on Craigslist. In the “free” section, there were already several posts asking for fruit. I felt it was only polite to offer something in return, so I posted an ad in the “barter” section, offering a “delicious homemade pie” in exchange for fruit. But no one responded, except one woman who had the nerve to ask me to contact her if I found any fruit. Find your own fruit, lady!

I decided to give up the Craigslist approach and solicit my friends instead. As far as I knew, none of them had fruit trees in their backyards. But maybe they knew people who did. I dashed off a request to a couple of my email groups. To my surprise, the offers poured in: apple trees in Berkeley, plum and lemon trees in San Francisco, and even a loquat tree in Sausalito.

But when I tried to make concrete plans, I ran into trouble. John wasn’t sure if his lemons were ripe. Caterina was going to be away on a camping trip when I wanted to pick the fruit, but said she’d leave the key in the mailbox. Then she phoned to say her plums were gone; maybe the birds had eaten them (or maybe my Craigslist rivals had). Lessley, my CHOW editor, also promised plums, but the neighbors had taken those on the lower branches and we’d need a fruit picker to retrieve the rest. Caterina had a fruit picker, but now she’d gone out of town without leaving her key. Gah!

Finally, my friend Troy and I were able to work out a convenient time for me to come over and help myself to his lemons. Burns had warned me it was bad fruit-picking etiquette to strip the tree, which he calls hoarding. But there were so many lemons, I barely made a dent. I filled my backpack with plump, juicy fruit, promising Troy that I’d make him lemon squares in exchange. He seemed pretty happy with the deal. I’m going to make lovely preserved lemons with the rest.

With the right fruit-picking etiquette, it turns out you can get all the fruit you want. Still, next time I need a lemon, I think I’ll just go to the store.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.