Ian Crown, who shipped his first crop of fresh Puerto Rican mangosteens to New York and LA yesterday, explains in an e-mail why they aren’t coming Chicago any time soon:

“It was a relatively simple choice as to where I shipped the fresh legal mangosteens. Sort of. I am originally from NY and have trolled Chinatown every summer with very rare mangosteen encounters for the last 14 years. NY also has a large number of high-end gourmet supermarkets, snazzy ($$$$) restaurants and upscale hotels. This standing customer base meant that the fruit would not need to be shipped any great distance away from the entry point. This addressed some of my concerns as the postharvest data is hard to come by for the mangosteen outside of the tropics.

“And, in addition to the above factors, I also wanted to land them in a distant-from-NY state where there was a relatively high percentage of the population that was from Southeast Asia, thus CA. I always assumed that the standing demand from the people who were most familiar with the fruit, the natives of Southeast Asia and anyone who had traveled there, would guarantee a sell-out for this fruit even if Americans were late to the party. Of course, the people who are driven to try things they are unfamiliar with always carries the day, as well. This is, after all, how the farm came to be in the first place.

“I do realize that these criteria could be used to describe many cities, especially and including Chicago which we lived outside of for 5 years. And loved, except that one winter when…

“Anyway, the problem was this. The size of the harvest. It is still tiny by commercial standards. In fact, one could make the argument that it is not even commercial in size at this time. I had to choose so I called different very well known firms. Some did not bother to call or email back and were removed from consideration. Several purveyors who claimed to specialize in the hard-to-get said they had never heard of the mangosteen. Not surprising, really. Often I was forced to explain that this was not a kind of mango! One big company even lectured me of the illegality of what I was doing! The weeding out process was easy, ultimately. And dozens of people and companies small and large reached out to me after I had already made my selection and I had to disappoint them by saying that quantities this small should not be further subdivided. By the way, years ago, I told Charlie Trotter about the farm and he was immediately aware of the ramifications. Some tops chefs ‘got it’ in a blink and I give them credit for the breadth of their training and knowledge of ingredients.

“I keep a list of the people who did contact me and are credible potential future customers and there are a couple who would cover the Midwest. It will take time. A lot of time. I would guess that it will take me a couple of years to have close to two tons and I could sell 5 tons a week in NYC indefinitely. Conversely, as the planting matures, it will eventually produce well over 15 tons or even 25 tons each year. If I have any hair left by then, it will be gray.

“On my farm, I joked years ago that once the harvest of a particular crop exceeded the dimensions of a typical car trunk, I deemed it commercial in size. I also grow many other fruits and will pick many tons of rambutan this year but back in the 90’s I had less than a car trunk of them in year one. A fire (set by kids) in ’97 and I was back to none for a while. And so it is with the mangosteen; this 2007 harvest may actually comprise TWO car trunk loads if we are lucky. And being in a hurricane belt means that on occasion, you are not the one who gets to pick the fruit off the tree.

“Hang in there, Chicagoans. You have a very warm place in our hearts and with some time and luck, someday we can put some exotic mangosteens in your hands.” 

Incidentally, Crown also grows longan and bacuri on his 100-acre farm. Check out this San Juan radio interview where he talks all about it.