A decade ago, if you talked about a mango the average guy on the street wouldn't know whether you were talking about a tropical fruit or the latest dance craze from South America.

But today, mango mania has hit mainstream America. We have eaten them on vacation -- mangoes with sticky rice in Thailand, mango chutney in India, mango daiquiris in the Caribbean. We have read about them in upscale food magazines -- where trendy chefs have used mangoes with everything from steak to ice cream. And we have seen them at the corner supermarket next to the oranges and lemons.

More and more of us are mango savvy, but if you are still one of those people who doesn't know a mango from a tango, get ready. A couple of factors are going to make this tasty tropical fruit harder to ignore.

*Chiquita Brands has kicked off a national consumer awareness campaign and has increased the volume of fruit it imports from Mexico.

*What once was a seasonal fruit available from June through September is now becoming available year 'round. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently approved importation of mangoes from a wider variety of countries in Central and South America and the West Indies if they have used a re

cently approved hot-water-bath treatment to kill insects.

"I agree that there is more familiarity today than there was three to four years ago," says Guillermo Givens, assistant markets editor for The Packer, a trade publication for the produce industry.

"People are seeing more and more mangoes in the markets and prices are more favorable. But I think the mango is still one exotic item. A lot of consumers still don't know what it is. They don't know whether to cook it or eat it raw. They don't know when it's ripe and how to pick a good one."

Chiquita would like to make mangoes as recognizable as bananas. Dennis Christou, national marketing manager for diversified products, says the public awareness campaign includes brand labeling on each fruit, point of sale product information and free brochures that contain recipes and nutrition information.

"We believe that there is a tremendous potential. We think the product is extremely tasty and if Americans try them they will agree with people elsewhere who have made them one of the most popular fruits in the world," he added.

In the past, some people who have tried mangoes may not have liked them because they bought a variety that was too fibrous or one that tasted like turpentine. Chiquita and J. R. Brooks of Homestead, Fla., a major U.S. producer of domestic mangoes, are selling varieties that eliminate these faults.

One of the most well received mango varieties is the Tommy Atkins, a large oblong mango with almost fiber-free flesh.

"The Tommy Atkins has a combination of a gorgeous outward appearance, a very good flavor and an acceptable shelf life," according to Bill Schaefer, director of marketing for J. R. Brooks, who is currently selling this variety to Giant Foods, Safeway and Farm Fresh.

"The true mango aficionado will not judge a ripe mango by its color. They smell the stem end and look for a fruity aroma and know it's ready to be eaten. But the Tommy Atkins tells you it's ripe by its color. It goes from red and green to a more vibrant red and yellow."

Only 10 to 15 per cent of the mangoes sold in domestic markets are from Florida. We rely mostly on imports, particularly from Mexico and Haiti. But imports ran into trouble back in the mid-1980s when the U.S. government banned use of the carcinogenic fumigant ethylenedibromide (EDB), an agent that was used to kill the troublesome fruit-fly larvae that could damage U.S. crops.

Supplies were interrupted briefly until a hot-water-dip treatment was developed. Mexico started using the hot water dip in 1988, but it took until last fall for USDA to allow importation of treated mangoes from Central and South America and the West Indies. The passing of the new rule should mean more mango imports, according to Robert Griffin, head of permits for USDA's Plant Protection and Quarantine Section.

"Peru, Ecuador and Brazil have now built treatment facilities, but the rest of the countries haven't yet," he said. "There is a lot of potential. More mangoes should be available and supplies should increase over the year as facilities are built."

It really doesn't take two to mango

Are you a mango illiterate? Don't worry. Here's a cram course in mango trivia:

*Mangoes are like martinis. You either love 'em or hate 'em. Some varieties can taste like turpentine, but most sold in supermarkets taste like a spicy-sweet peach or a cross between a peach and a pineapple.

*Squeezing and thumping is not the ticket to good shopping. Smelling is. Sniff the stem end of the fruit and select those with a pleasing floral scent. Reject mangoes that smell sour or alcoholic, a sure sign of fermentation. Avoid those which look like they need a health spa -- the out-of-shape ones with flabby skin.

*Mangoes will talk to you when they are ripe. Like a peach or a plum, a mango is ready to eat when it yields slightly to gentle pressure. At room temperature, moderately ripe fruit will stay fresh for one or two days.

*Don't be a drip when eating a mango. Just because this fruit is dubbed "the apple of the South" doesn't mean you can go around munching on a mango like you are Johnny Appleseed. The juicy tropical fruit tends to drip all over your body when eaten out of hand. Cynics say the only right way to eat a mango is standing in a bathtub while wearing a raincoat or leaning over the sink naked.

*Mangoes are good for you. They are high in nutrition and low in calories. For example, a small mango (3 1/2 ounces) is only 66 calories. Mangoes are a good source of vitamins A and C and also contain a significant amount of copper, potassium and vitamin B6.

*Beware of mango rot. Store mangoes flat at room temperature, never in a fruit basket where the fruits make skin contact. Once they start getting black spot, it spreads like measles in a day care center. And, like people who live in tropical climates, they don't like the cold. Do not put them in a refrigerator to ripen; they ripen best between 55 and 75 degrees. Once they are ripe, you can put them in the refrigerator for one or two more days.

*Mangoes have a secret fruit promoters never dilvulge. Some people, particularly those allergic to poison ivy and poison oak, may break out when they come in contact with mango skin or sap. So, to be safe, peel them under running water or wear plastic gloves. But once the skin is gone you are safe; eating the fruit won't cause an allergic reaction.

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