A Friendly Ripening, December 12, 2005

Scott, the ice cream store manager, looks up from behind his bushy brown mustache. His feathered hair is a constant windblown reminder of his recent promotion and brand-spanking-new black Trans-Am that he says should inspire all of us to feel successful. As a dishwasher, I wear my invisible badge of success on the polyester blue and white checked shirt, plastic apron, and black geriatric shoes that come with the job. It is Philly 1985 – my first job.

I worked at Friendly’s in the mall. You’ve gotta start at the bottom kid, Scott tells me. But if you can find another dishwasher for me, I’ll move you up to the window to scoop ice-cream. My friend Matt starts as a dishwasher a week later. At the staff meeting, Scott has some announcements. You all have worked hard this month, he says. I know what is coming, and I am excited. It has been a month since Scott approved my new dishwashing system that processes more plates through the Hobart 42-inch machine plus my ongoing dish return 2000 game with the bus boys and the wait staff has nearly doubled the speed at which dirty dishes come back to me. I am moving up. No more plunging drains or sneak attacks by the cook who pelts me on the back with half and half creamers while my hands are deep in half eaten mashed potatoes. Scott pauses for effect while Matt moves up to the ice-cream window. Everyone applauds. As the employees disperse, I ask him, shocked — how could you move Matt up and not me? I was here first, and I work harder than anyone. Chris, he says patting me on the shoulder, you are the best little dishwasher we have ever had, what would I do without you. Two weeks later, I start a lawn-mowing business. The lesson for me: like fruit farmers, good managers should know how to grow and ripen employees. Bad ones don’t. So then, how does fruit ripen…?

Ripening of Fruit

Most Fruit, unlike vegetables, ripen after they are picked from the plant. Fruit growth has four stages. First is fertilization, second is multiplication of cells, third is the expansion of cells. It is this 3rd stage in which sugar is stored in the cell vacuole as is or in more compact granules of starch. The fourth stage is ripening. There are two styles of ripening: climacteric and non-climacteric.

Climacteric fruits like bananas, pears, and tomatoes are stimulated into ripening when exposed to ethylene gas, a natural byproduct of the ripening process. Often they convert starches into sugars. You can easily understand this if you compare the taste and texture of an unripe and ripe banana. Unripe bananas store their sugars in the compact starch form. Their astringent taste is a natural defense mechanism that helps protect the cells from infection and/or predators. Ripe bananas have converted this starch to sugar. Non-climacteric fruits such as citrus and most berries do not store starch or improve much after harvest, so their quality depends mainly on how far they had ripened on the plant.* The moral of the story for farmers or managers – know your biochemistry, the kind of fruit you have and the ripening process. Keep an eye out for the changes and be ready to promote that top banana when you see it is available.

Enjoy and be fruitful! – Chris Mittelstaedt chiefbanana@fruitguys.com

*McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner, 1984

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