SOMETIMES A FRUIT is just a fruit. But since the beginning of recorded human thought, we have insisted on fruit as a sexual metaphor. “Marry me, / give me the fruit of your body!” the goddess Ishtar commands the hero in the Sumerian epic “Gilgamesh,” which was inscribed in cuneiform, the earliest known writing system, on a baked clay tablet nearly 4,000 years ago. In Genesis, Eve takes a bite of “p’ri,” Hebrew for “fruit” — of any kind: The specification of the apple was a later Latin pun, “malus” meaning evil and “malum” meaning apple. Notably, in the 16th century the eggplant was called “mala insana” (“mad apple”), as well as “poma amoris” (“love apple”), a term also applied to the tomato, all these fruits commingling in language as if what mattered were not their individual characteristics but the sheer glory of fruitiness as a category — the abundance, extravagance, juiciness of the natural world, relentlessly flowering and swelling. Everywhere our ancestors looked, on the tree, vine, shrub, on the plate, there was evidence of life perpetuating itself: fertility incarnate.
Still, the eggplant is a relative newcomer as botanical sex symbols go, perhaps because it is not properly phallic across species; it has been catapulted to stardom only in emoji form. No such confusion surrounds the peach, with its telltale cleft. In China, where the fruit was first domesticated, the phrase “sharing the peach” has long conveyed gay male desire. A story from the third century B.C. recounts how a young man bit into a peach, then handed it to his noble master, who, rather than take this as an insult, understood it as an act of intimacy and sank his teeth into the flesh, too — a theme reprised more explicitly in the Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film, “Call Me by Your Name” (adapted from the 2007 novel by the American writer André Aciman). The fruit carried similar freight in early 17th-century Renaissance Italy, as the art and food historian John Varriano has noted, when “dare le pesche” (literally, “to give the peach”) translated as “to yield one’s bum.” In 2016, Apple unveiled a redesigned peach emoji with the cleft delicately pushed to the right, almost out of sight. Users expressed dismay. The cleft was restored to its rightful place.
The banana has a similarly louche aura, which presented something of a challenge to prudish sensibilities when it entered the American imagination after the Civil War. (Steamships had started to replace schooners, shortening travel time from the Caribbean so that fruit wouldn’t rot before arrival.) So obvious was the banana’s shape, etiquette manuals demanded that it be cut with a knife and eaten with a fork rather than raised whole to the lips. One importer felt compelled to print and distribute postcards of women sedately eating bananas, as staid as cows chewing their cud, to show that it was socially and morally acceptable to do so. A century later, the banana would become a handy tool in sex ed classes, as a model on which to demonstrate condom technique. Why, then, has the eggplant deposed the banana as the most phallic of fruits, at least in the digital sphere? One emoji user I consulted suggested that it’s because the emoji version shows the fruit half-peeled — although surely that makes it all the franker, gleefully unzipped. Another noted that the curve of the banana emoji wasn’t quite right, as if realism were the point.