Robin Laurance is a writer and photographer whose work has been widely published in newspapers and magazines, both in the UK and in America. He began his career with The Guardian newspaper in London before turning freelance and contributing to The Times, The Sunday Times, The New York Times, Washington Post, Business Week and Forbes magazine. Reviewing a previous book of his, the Times Educational Supplement referred to Laurance as ‘that rare breed of genuine photojournalists with a talent for telling stories in photographs and words’. In his latest book, he traces the extraordinary social history of coconut, and explores the unseen role that the coconut has been playing in our lives in times past and present. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with the author wherein he talks about his book “Coconut: How the shy fruit changed our world”.
How did the idea of this book originate? What made you decide to explore coconut as a topic for your book?
I am happily addicted to marzipan, that sweetmeat made from almonds and sugar. I started to write a book about it, and in the early stages of research compared the almond with other nuts including the coconut. Even after just a cursory look at the coconut it was clear that it was an incredibly interesting fruit — and much more interesting than almonds and marzipan — so I gave up the marzipan book and started on the book about coconuts.
Why do you refer to Coconut as the “shy fruit”?
For two reasons. Firstly because we have seen little of its multiple uses — the nut has kept quiet about its talents. And secondly because the Coconut shy was a game popular at fun fairs: you throw small wooden balls at coconuts set on a pole, and if you knock the nut off you keep it!
A lot of research went into writing this book, in which you have deftly blended travels, history, anecdotes and contemporary developments. How much time did you spend in researching and writing of this book?
It took two years to research and then about nine months to write.
In this coconut trail, where did your research take you to?
The research took me to libraries and to fruit markets in the UK and to India, Thailand and the Philippines. And I spent many, many hours doing internet research.
What surprised you most about what you learned through your research?
The importance and multiple uses of coconut charcoal. Particularly that coconut charcoal is carried on ambulances in Britain as a first response to ingested poisons, especially overdoses. And it was a surprise to learn that the charcoal is used in nuclear fusion research.
And what were some of the biggest challenges in your research?
Mars Inc. is a notoriously secretive company and I had great difficulty in getting the company to talk about its Bounty bar.
You mention in the book about the associations of coconut with art movements throughout history and its influence on contemporary art. Can you please tell us more about it?
Yes. In sixteenth-century central Europe, craftsmen and silversmiths collaborated to fashion beautiful carved and decorated coconut goblets. The nuts were intricately carved often telling ancient or mythical stories and then embellished with gold and silver. These became collectors’ pieces and are now found in museums and private collections all over the world. In modern times the coconut palm with its fronds casting their shadows over pristine beaches has become the visual shorthand for barefoot hedonism tempting holiday-makers on packages to paradise. Few pieces of visual art are used to market a product in this way. The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo used weeping coconuts to express her pain and frustration. And the Monty Python team used coconuts to imitate the sounds of galloping horses in their epic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.
And a coconut dish (or dishes) that you relish?
I personally cook with coconut oil especially when cooking rice. And I love Thai dishes cooked with coconut milk. My favourite cocktail is a Pina Colada — rum and coconut cream. Wonderful.
If there’s one thing readers and coconut lovers should take away from reading your book, what should it be?
I think it is worth considering the much larger part the coconut has played and continues to play in our lives when what we know are the usual things like cooking with the oil and the milk, drinking the water, and treating our skin with creams based on the oil. The consumer products giant Unilever was built on the backs of coconuts; we use coconuts to manufacture soap and to construct life-saving gas masks. The coconut palm provides hundreds of thousands of jobs across South and South-east Asia. The nut saved the life of the man destined to become the 35th president of the United States (John F. Kennedy). India is the main source for coir. During WWII, American GI’s were given coconut bars as part of their rations. All this and more, and yet only now with this book has the shy coconut been brought out into the open.