Today I sing a song in praise of oranges. Sweet, juicy and packed with Vitamin C as they are, I think they’re pretty special.
In the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, oranges were considered a luxury and a rare treat, particularly in England and continental Europe. Due to the warm climate required for growing oranges, the British had to import them from places like Spain, Italy and northern Africa. It was considered desirable to provide children with oranges to fend off scurvy, particularly during the cold, damp English winters. Hence, using oranges as stocking stuffers became a Christmas tradition.
While conditions were not quite as austere in the 1960s New York of my childhood, oranges were definitely not on the everyday menu. Oranges had to be transported from Florida, and they did not come cheap. Our Vitamin C came in the form of orange juice, either the frozen variety or canned.
The first challenge one met upon removing a can of orange juice from the freezer was opening it. This required prying off a tear strip that was often frozen to the can and refused to budge regardless of how strong one’s fingernails were. My mother taught me the technique of using your teeth. Once open, it was necessary to dig out the frozen mass with a spoon and wrestle it into a pitcher. Then add three cans of water and stir, stir, stir, using the side of the spoon to chop up recalcitrant pieces of frozen goo that refused to melt.
Orange juice in those big 46 ounce cans was a lot easier. You just punched a hole in it with a church key.
The first time I ever saw an orange growing on a tree was during a very long car trip to Florida to visit my grandparents over Christmas vacation when I was in eighth grade. Interstate 95 was not yet completed on the central Florida coast at the time, so we had to detour off onto the state highway between Fort Pierce and Vero Beach. We drove past miles of orange groves, gawking all the way. Dozens of fruit stands were open for business, catering to all the looky-loos from up north, just like us. And the oranges were cheap! At least by New York standards. We filled the back of the station wagon with a pile of mesh bags of oranges to take home.
When my parents retired to California twenty years ago, they bought a new house in what was once an orange grove. Sixty orange trees remained on their property. They’re all dead now (the trees, not my parents). Apparently, it takes an awful lot of water to keep an orange tree alive, particularly in the broiling hot summers of California’s Central Valley. At first, my parents irrigated them with drip lines, but then they got old (my parents, not the trees) and it became too hard.
When one considers that oranges are so pleasing to both the eye and the palate, one may wonder why they have not played a more prominent role in popular culture. It seems that the still life paintings of famous artists are filled with fruitbowls containing apples, pears and grapes. One rarely sees an orange.
Then again, there is the famous rhyme about “oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clemens.” And there is the well-known riddle that asks whether the color orange was named for the fruit or vice-versa. And there is the oft-cited observation that there is no word in the English language that rhymes with “orange.”
I suppose I should round out this post by including a photo of some gorgeous oranges hanging on a tree. However, we are traveling and I am posting from my cell phone and I have no idea how to do that fancy shit.