Sticker Shock

Sticker Shock

It was the night before Chuseok. Lotte Mart was crammed with last-minute shoppers prepping for the biggest holiday feast of the year. They swooped through the meat section with an every-man-for-himself attitude, juked around the rice cake display, and hit an unexpected traffic snarl in produce. Road rage grew at the bottleneck behind two foreigners frozen with indecision at an endcap display.

“Should we?” Sam had already talked himself in and out of the purchase three times.

“We can’t,” I decided again. “It’s way too expensive.”

Overloaded carts maneuvered wildly around us as people pushed toward the gift display. Chuseok is like South Korea’s Thanksgiving, a harvest festival centered on food and family. It’s customary to exchange practical (and overpriced) gift boxes, and the shelves were loaded with sets of cooking oils, toothpastes, dried mushrooms, or Spam. People jostled past us to get at the most popular and expensive option: Chuseok fruit baskets.

Gift fruit is a big deal in Asia. For Chuseok this means high-end apples and Asian pears, specially cultivated to be bigger, prettier, and more delicious than normal. Farmers painstakingly monitor the fruits’ growth, even fashioning little hats to prevent overexposure to sunlight. This pampering comes with a price. Korean gift fruit skirts the edge of sanity: upwards of $10 per pear. Japan is even worse.

But the fruit behind our retail paralysis wasn’t quite that special. Instead, it was a perfectly normal melon tagged at the perfectly normal price of nine dollars.

Nine dollars. For a single, average-sized, melon. We weren’t even sure what kind it was; some weird cross between cantaloupe and honeydew.

But evidence suggested it was worth the price. Tiny print at the top announced it as guksan (국산), a domestic product.

 “Just this once. For Chuseok.”

“…ok, ok, ok. But choose a really good one. Gah, I can’t believe we’re doing this!”

Forget the holidays, buying South Korean fruit is always a special occasion for us. I have to be in a festive mood to part with $2 for a peach or $7 for a bunch of grapes. It is cheaper to buy apples from halfway around the world than from Korea. Hundreds of varieties of citrus fruit are grown right here on Jeju, including the island’s iconic hallabong oranges. But the price is so high even locals rarely buy them.

And yet Korean fruit regularly tempts us to break our budget. Because it is amazing.

I kid you not, a slice of watermelon or handful of strawberries hits the same spot as a caramel brownie. And it’s a good thing too, because in Korean cuisine fruit is dessert. Buying a melon is like buying a pie; you probably wouldn’t do it every day. It’s the kind of thing you slice up for special occasions, like a visit from close friends or family (or simply when overcome with temptation until you eat the whole thing yourself because sometimes that’s just the right thing to do.)

To Americans, fruit for dessert seems austere and boring, the kind of thing you’d do on a diet. This is because American fruit sucks. Taste is literally the least important factor, after high yields and long shelf lives. To add insult to injury, American fruit is often sold under-ripe and out of season. Even the nutritional value is affected.

I’m no health nut out to get revenge on Big Fruit; this is Chubbles Destroyer of Brownies talking here. I’m just saying that on the scale of deliciousness American fruit is a grainy sepia compared to Korea’s technicolor wonderland.

Part of it is that Koreans are willing to shell out big bucks for fruit that tastes great—especially around Chuseok. Preorders on gift fruit boxes at megachain Emart were up nearly 150% over last year, even though apple prices have skyrocketed due to a bad harvest.

But Sam and I still dissolve into existential dithering when confronted with a $9 melon. Hence the pileup of carts digging into our backs until we finally committed to the biggest, prettiest one we could find.

You know how a pan of brownies can call your name until you break down and shove the whole thing in your face? Well, within minutes of getting home we were mowing down that melon. The taste was somewhere between cantaloupe and honeydew, but with the sugary denseness of a peach. And unlike a pan of brownies, this melon came with no regrets.

Ok, maybe one regret: we’d never be able to justify that expense again. This would doubtless be our one and only Korean wonder melon.

“You know,” Sam said as we cleaned up the carnage, “maybe you should write a blog post about expensive fruit.”

“Yeah, but we ate it too fast to get a photo...” I trailed off as our eyes met. Two minds with but a single thought.

“You pull out the camera,” I told him, grabbing my wallet. “I’ll be right back.”



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