Traveling north on I-75, approaching the Florida/Georgia border, among the various signs offering "PAPERSHELL PECANS, DOLLAR A BAG" and "CHEAP CIGARETTES AND LIQUOR, STOP HERE!!!" are a generous number of signs advertising something called "Indian River Fruit."
I've driven past these signs in the past, despite their clever marketing campaigns (e.g. "LAST CHANCE, EXIT NOW!"), but I'd always wondered...just what the hell is an Indian River Fruit? You never see it advertised in grocery stores (at least not in Alabama)—so just what, exactly, was I missing out on? I imagined some type of odd-shaped, brilliantly colored, gourd-like melon, growing in a riverbed—or perhaps even growing on the water, like a juicy, round lilly pad!
My imagination ran wild. I could see Native Americans, thousands of years ago, gathering up these precious food staples, eating the moist purple/pink/blue/orange/green flesh inside and using the husks to fashion shoes, tools, weapons, and casinos for their people to share. Historically, maybe this traditional food even had a place in regular prayer rituals; perhaps, like peyote, Indians used River Fruit to commune with the Earth or maybe even embark on spirit journeys.
On my way back from the 2003 Tampa Noder Gathering, my curiosity finally got the better of me and I turned off on one of the multiple tourist-trap exits, near the billboard proclaiming "CHEAP ALCOHOL AND INDIAN RIVER FRUIT" (a terribly unfortunate and ironic combination, I thought to myself). Similar signs guided me to the exit-ramp fruit stand, where all my questions would be answered...where the secrets of the Indian River Fruit would finally be revealed.
My first thought when I arrived at the fruit stand was, hmm, why are there no Indians here? The tiny corrugated steel building was filled with African American merchants peddling their wares, but there wasn't a Brave or a Squaw to be found. I was disappointed that my fruit wasn't going to be gifted to me by an actual, honest-to-god Indian, but I figured these guys probably worked for the Indians—Indians who, no doubt, had their hands full with all the administrative duties that go along with running a successful Indian River Fruit establishment.
I approached the first merchant I saw and said, "Hi, I'm from Alabama..." (This is a secret verbal device I often use when I am out of town; it basically means, "I don't know shit about anything, so the following comment/question is bound to be really dumb...")
I continued: "So, what exactly is Indian River Fruit?"
Well, folks, it turns out that Indian River Fruit isn't a specific type of fruit at all. "Indian River Fruit" is a descriptor applied to any and all fruit that is harvested within a certain distance from the Indian River, a river that flows through East Central Florida. So when signs advertise "Indian River Fruit," they're not referring to one fruit in particular, but rather a group of fruits that come from a specific region within Florida.
The fruit stand was filled with various citrus fruits—tangerines, oranges, grapefruit—all bagged and proudly labeled with a picture of an Indian's head (in full ceremonial headdress) and the words "Indian River Fruit."
Still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that Indian River Fruit wasn't in and of itself a fruit, per se, I asked another question (again prefaced with "Now remember, I'm from Alabama," to protect myself from appearing ignorant of my own ignorance): "So, what exactly is the big deal about fruit grown near the Indian River?"
I was told that Indian River Fruit was known the world over for being the tastiest of all citrus fruits. (This begged the question: if the stuff is so damn famous, why had I never before heard of Indian River Fruit—or the Indian River, for that matter?—but I felt it wise to let that one slide.) I was given a sample of both an Indian River orange and an Indian River tangerine, and they were both delicious. Not so sure about the "best in the world" title, but they were pretty damn good nonetheless.
When I arrived home, I was curious to find what properties of the Indian River made it possible to cultivate the world's best citrus fruit. A quick search on the Internet didn't reveal much regarding the origins of Indian River Fruit, but I did stumble upon a bunch of information regarding the Indian River itself (including a writeup here on e2), which seems to suggest that the "secret ingredient" of Indian River fruit is toxic waste, as the river is apparently quite polluted and has been that way for several years.
Good lord, that's horrible, I said to myself as I bit into another tangerine.
Servo5678 points out: As someone who grew up only minutes away from the Indian River, let me tell you that around the community itself there is no Indian River Fruit peddling. The IRF label is mainly a tourist trap for places away from the river, it seems.