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oranges

31 october 2013

One of the watersheds of my eating and drinking life came when "not from concentrate" juice seized hold of the market, and the fresh product of the orange elbowed those little tins of frozen juice out of my refrigerator. It looked like a river of juice was gonna flow into my mouth forever, straight from the grovestands of Florida. Of course, come to find that between frozen concentrate and Tropicana lies much of a muchness. Modern "not from concentrate" juice is denatured water that used to reside somewhere inside a citrus peel. It is extracted from said peels and stored in huge sterile vats till needed, when it's stirred and flavored with bits of its former home that don't have to be labelled even as "natural flavors," since they were once distantly acquainted with the oranges that the water came from. This stuff gets shipped from its holding areas, leaving a heavy carbon footprint as it goes, and populates grocery shelves. Then again, it tastes OK, and at 5:30 in the morning my kitchen skills are limited to punching the button on Mister Coffee. OJ from the waxed packet suits me fine, however it got there.

Clarissa Hyman's Oranges traces a vast and magificently complicated story of trees, fruit and people across all the world's continents (well, you always have to add "except Antarctica," though I suppose somebody at the South Pole is fixing themselves a Tropicana screwdriver as we speak). Like lemons, oranges are a conspiracy between chance hybridization and human cultivation. Early in the history of arboriculture, orange trees seem not to have existed; classical Greeks and Romans grew citrons, but probably not any oranges that we would recognize. But then, by the late Middle Ages, oranges seem to be everywhere in Europe, growing in vast profusion in Spain and Sicily, and traded at great peril and price all the way to Britain and Scandinavia. You can't swing a cat in a Restoration play without hitting an orangewoman, and by the mid-18th century there were Anglo entrepreneurs shipping oranges from Florida to England.

Orange-growing and the orange trade have been volatile businesses at times. Frost, disease, and overproduction have caused many a boom and bust. Oranges have sometimes been commoner than proverbially incomparable apples, but at other times they have been keenly-desired rarities. Not quite fifty years ago, in Chicago, Santa Claus came to my elementary school and gave each of us an orange wrapped in tinfoil. 21st century first-graders would probably unwrap such a thing and say WTF. But in the 1960s there was still a sense that an orange was exotic and fleeting, a little capsule of sunshine sent from Florida to the blizzardbound Midwest.

In Texas, in the early autumn of 2013, most of the oranges in the supermarkets were South African. Globalization means that no fruit is ever out of season anymore. (Well, globalization plus the tilt of Earth's axis.) Last week, something interesting happened. Oranges in "Anglo" supermarkets continued to be lightweight, radioactively orange fruit from South Africa, but the supply in "Mexican" markets switched over to Texas fruit, cheap, juicy, and local. But rarely seen in our major interstate chain groceries, because Texas oranges look pale and have lots of (trivial) blemishes. Produce buyers for the big chains want fruit that looks like a painting, with the result that their fruit is often expensive and low-quality, so people buy less, and in defiance of supply and demand, the price goes up to accommodate all the waste. My advice, if you want oranges, is to settle for things that look like they might have been part of a living organism at some point.

Oranges have an elaborate social history as art objects, though, from Prokofiev to Jeanette Winterson. They are featured in many an early-modern still life, whether for their symbolic cultural capital or just for the technical problems that a spirally-peeled orange poses to painters. And, as Hyman notes in foody chapters accompanied by recipes, oranges have perhaps a greater pride of place in high cuisine than any other fruit. Ducks were flying around Gaul 2,000 years ago much as they do today, long before any Western European had ever heard of an orange. But somewhere in the genetic code of wild citrus species lurked the genetic developments that would put the birds on the path to duck à l'orange.

Hyman, Clarissa. Oranges: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.

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