Now reading The Hunt for White Grapefruit

The Hunt for White Grapefruit

The elusive key to tiki cocktails.

It’s blistering hot in Alice, Texas, and I’m convinced the Dairy Queen parking lot where I’m scarfing down a Dilly Bar might just melt at any moment. Unlike the goateed heroes of Smash Mouth, I’ve never been walkin’ on the sun, but I would imagine that it’s something like it is here in the Rio Grande Valley: scrubby, sweltering, parched.

Or maybe I’m just hungover.

I’m here with three guys on a quest to find, of all things, a grapefruit. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I decided to join bartenders Neal Bodenheimer, Kirk Estopinal, and Nick Detrich on a South Texas citrus pilgrimage, but a pounding headache after a night of one too many cervezas felt like an appropriate start. From the get-go, weaving along the Texas-Mexico border, the trip had all the makings of a strange, post-apocalyptic fever dream. Kraftwerk blared from our SUV stereo. Border patrol helicopters swooped low over barren hills. Fields of charred sunflowers—burned in the field so as to easily extract the plant’s oil—stood at creepy, charcoal-colored attention.

Bodenheimer and Estopinal have been crucial to the New Orleans liquor scene since opening Cure, the granddaddy of new wave craft cocktail bars, in 2009. Detrich, the youngest of the bunch, is the rum-loving mastermind behind the group’s celebrated tiki haunt, Cane & Table. All three share the kind of blinders-on, laser-focused commitment to ingredient sourcing that’s led us to this strange territory, on a wild goose chase to find an equally peculiar fruit: the last remaining white grapefruit in Texas.

Citrus growers don’t think much of the white grapefruit—once the only game in town, now the few left hang around relatively functionless. Bartenders, though, have an entirely different attitude. As tiki culture has surfed back into kitschy fashion on a wave of rummy, flaming scorpion bowls and Don Ho sing-alongs, white grapefruit (a key ingredient in many tiki classics) has become a highly coveted prize for its high acid content and punchy sourness—and one that’s wildly difficult to source.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen white grapefruit sold commercially. Growers definitely aren’t blocking off any more space to plant white grapefruit, that’s for sure,” Russon Holbrook, owner of Earth Born Market in McAllen, Texas, said. Holbrook’s family has operated South Tex Organics, the largest organic citrus farm in the state, for decades, and South Tex is now home to some of the last white grapefruit trees anywhere. He’s our hookup.

“There just isn’t the market for whites, really, so the trees that are out there now are really the last,” Holbrook said. Like clockwork, he breaks into the state’s longtime “redder is better” motto, and gushes about the sweet pulp and ruby hue of the Rio Star grapefruit—Texas’ crown jewel. Like a citrus Frankenstein, the lab-engineered Rio Star was crafted to suit American taste buds: it’s plumper, juicier, and sweeter than any white could naturally be.

“People used to sprinkle sugar on top white grapefruit to make it sweet,” he noted. “We’ve developed it so you don’t have to do that anymore. People don’t want to eat something sour.”

This scarcity became a kind of citrus-driven challenge for the Cure guys. They weren’t content, like other craft bartenders, to use Ocean Spray’s white grapefruit juice. The impetus was particularly strong for Detrich, who has built a drinks program around dusting off historically important, antiquated ingredients from the attic and giving them new life in a “proto-tiki” form.

“From a culinary perspective, the fruits that were used predominantly in the first few decades of the last century were more acidic, bright, and better suited for cocktails. Requesting and using them not only preserves them, but offers tastes of earlier times,” mused Detrich, who then proceeded to drop a not-so-subtle reference to the 1999 Weird Al Yankovic parody song “Grapefruit Diet.”

White grapefruit is the latest in a long line of American fruits and vegetables—chokecherries, muscadines—that have seen their popularity wane due to scientific advancement and shifting taste, pushing the produce toward either obscurity or extinction.

“Part of it is the wider scope of New World foods,” said Detrich. “The evolution of Ruby Red and Rio Star charts tastes, tendencies, and the abilities of farmers to react to the needs of food consumers. They are products of supply-and-demand economics.”

Like the apple varieties grown in the U.S. for centuries (more than 90 percent of which are now extinct), most strands of white grapefruit have all but vanished, with others living on only in lab facilities like Texas A&M’s Citrus Center. The white grapefruit is now almost as rare as the custard-like wild pawpaw I grew up with in Kentucky. Sure, everyone’s heard of a Ruby Red. A Duncan White? Not so much.

Of course, not all foods that go the way of the dodo need to be saved. Crops have been popping up and withering away for millennia, vanishing as both man and nature intervene. White grapefruit, though—with a taste as arresting as its stark natural habitat—seem worth saving.

In June, Holbrook was amused, if a little skeptical, about our collective interest in the fruit. Out of acres upon acres, there were only four trees that produced white grapefruit, and he couldn’t even recall their exact locations in the offseason. Nobody had bothered to care for a long time.

By the time I visited again in January, during harvest time—and insisted on scaling a tree to pick grapefruits myself—he was downright baffled. Why, out of all the trees dripping with sunshine-colored citrus like nature’s own Christmas ornaments, did the white grapefruit matter? In Holbrook’s eyes, the fruit was not only bitter on the tongue, but something of an inferior plant across the board. The skin was too bright and too attractive to bugs, with a pith easily penetrated by unwanted critters. Each year, their production was hit or miss.

Wouldn’t I just like to pluck some nice kumquats?

Halfway up a tree, I quickly learned that, unlike their newer counterparts, white grapefruit trees are thorny: nubby and knobby and gnarled like feisty old women still serving up mouth-puckering sass. “Yeah, sure, all these fresh-faced Rio Stars and Ruby Reds might have the sweet blush of youth,” they seemed to say, “but I’ve got punch.” I grabbed two—softball-sized and light yellow, hidden in the dense limbs—and scuttled down, picking up a few battle scars along the way.

The day the white grapefruits arrived at Cane & Table, months after our first trip, we gathered to ogle the goods. I tried to juggle a few. Detrich beamed and chattered excitedly about testing pH content. As the juice hit my lips for the first time—every bit as tart and biting as promised—I understood why, sometimes, sour can be so much more interesting than sweet.