Cotton Candy Grapes: Forbidden Fruit

This essay first appeared in Humanology, an anthology of AP Lang & Comp student essays inspired by John Green’s podcast and book ‘The Anthropocene Reviewed.’

Cotton Candy Grapes: Forbidden Fruit

By J.B. Danoff

One fateful day a couple weeks ago, my girlfriend and I decided to take a break from our Grey’s Anatomy marathon, emerge from the basement, and have a snack. Among the food, an absolute classic: grapes. But these were no ordinary grapes. They were Cotton Candy grapes. 

If you have never had them, no, they are not grapes made out of cotton candy, but rather grapes that taste eerily similar to cotton candy. Nothing about their appearance betrays their remarkable flavor; they look like ordinary green table grapes. But eating one, you are immediately struck with a remarkably cotton-candy-like flavor and slightly abnormal sweetness.

Our town’s sole non-Walmart major grocery store Kroger offers these mysterious grapes, and as such, many of my friends have tried them. These grapes are quite polarizing. I find them quite delightful, but my mom and a classmate both expressed disgust when I brought them up. Even I will acknowledge their flaws. To start, the grapes are almost too sweet, bordering on sickly. I like them this way, but I could see how some wouldn’t. Another flaw is that their cotton candy flavor seems to wear off and become less noticeable as you eat. The experience is akin to drinking a La Croix (or your choice of flavored carbonated water); with the first sip you are hit with a blast of delicious fruity flavor, but as you drink, it becomes less noticeable. Your taste buds become acclimated and start to pick up less of that calorieless essence. This is my experience, at least.

As my girlfriend and I ate those green spheroids of deliciousness, I began to read the text on the bag from which they came and noticed an invitation to email the founder of the company that distributed the grapes, a Mister Jack Pandol of Grapery, and give them your thoughts. I was amused by this and began drafting an email to Mr. Pandol, aloud, with my mom and girlfriend in the room. In the brief email, I expressed my mostly sincere but slightly played up amazement and awe for the grapes and asked a question that truly had troubled me for some time: how did they get these grapes to taste so much like cotton candy?

I promptly forgot I had sent the email but the next day when I was coming home from school I was delighted to see an email in my inbox from THE Jack Pandol. I was beside myself and eagerly opened and read it. It was a pretty standard email praising Grapery’s grapes and their passion for the grape-growing craft, explaining how their grapes aren’t genetically engineered, emphasizing their all-natural nature, and asking what retailer I purchased the grapes from. But as for the origins of the Cotton Candy grapes, Jack gave me but a hint at their genesis: “We get a lot of questions about how we were able to get these grapes to taste like cotton candy,” he wrote. “Probably the most interesting part of the story is we didn’t set out to create a cotton candy flavored grape, it’s just what we got through years of crossbreeding different varieties of grapes.” That the cotton candy flavor was accidental was certainly interesting, but my thirst for knowledge on the history of the grapes was not satiated. I had to know more. So I read the Wikipedia article on Cotton Candy grapes.

Apparently, Cotton Candy grapes were created by a fruit geneticist and former USDA researcher named David Cain. Cain was at a trade show where among the grapes showcased was a purple Concord grape that tasted like cotton candy. However, the grape was fragile and seedy. So over the course of years, Cain hand pollinated millions of grapes to combine the Concord grapes with sturdier varieties of common grapes. The process took 12 years! Finally, the delicious cotton candy grape we know and love today was yielded. In 2010, Cain’s company began licensing the fruit’s growers including a company called Grapery founded in 1996 by a UC Davis plant scientist, our man, the legend, Jack Pandol.

What an interesting tale! But this all raises a question: should this grape have been created? There is something about it that seems fundamentally unnatural, even though the process of its creation was “natural,” or at least as natural as any domesticated agricultural goods, as Jack stressed to me in his email. For so long, we have tried to get candy and other artificial foods to have natural flavors. Fruit-flavored candy is ubiquitous, and grape-flavored candy is a key member of the pantheon of fruit flavors. Yet now, we have succeeded in making natural foods with unnatural flavors. We’ve gone from grape flavored candies to candy flavored grapes. There is something about this that inspires awe and terror in my heart. I wonder if David Cain felt this way too; if he, like Victor Frankenstein, was horrified by his creation. Frightened by its unnatural flavor. Filled with terror of what mankind is capable of. I imagine him racked with an existential guilt and anguish because he was capable of making those grapes taste like cotton candy. It shouldn’t be possible. It’s unnatural. Ungodly, even.

I think I finally understand why Cotton Candy grapes are so polarizing, and I understand their tantalizing allure. It’s precisely because of their unnatural flavor. But not just the novelty of the fact that the grapes taste like a beloved confectionery treat, it is something deeper. To eat a Cotton Candy grape is to eat the impossible. It feels somehow forbidden. As if God or some primeval spirit of the universe did not intend for us to eat a fruit that tasted like that. To eat a Cotton Candy grape is to eat a terrible man-made miracle. Some are drawn to the thrill and pleasure of it all, others disgusted by its blatant corruption of the natural world. To eat a Cotton Candy grape is to eat the pinnacle of human achievement in technology and agriculture. But to eat a cotton candy grape is also to eat that which we know should not be eaten. This duality is what makes the grape so compelling. They are the embodiment of the hubristic spirit of our species. To pervert something from the natural word and make it taste like one of our purely artificial creations. To eat a cotton candy grape is to laugh in the face of god, and this is precisely why we eat them.