Apples of Autumn

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Autumn is the time of year when I start obsessing about apples.  I don’t know whether an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, but I do know that my daily apple is a dose of happiness.

Growing up in the New York City area, the only types of apples that I knew anything about were Macintosh and Red Delicious.  If any kid pulled an apple out of his Superman lunchbox (Not a stupid apple again!  Anyone got a Devil Dog or a Ring Ding?  Anyone wanna trade?), it was pretty much guaranteed to be one of those two.

The produce section at Waldbaum’s also carried these funky-looking green things that probably weren’t really apples at all.  Green apples from Mars, I called them.  Mom said their proper name was Granny Smith, but I thought she was joking.  They were horribly sour and I had a grandmother named Granny Smith and my mother hated her guts, so I figured Mom was just calling the mother-in-law a sourpuss.  Anyway, she’d buy a few of those weird green things once in a very great while when she was getting ready to bake an apple pie.

Many years later, when visiting Mom in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley, I discovered the local favorite apple that went by the moniker of Rome Beauty.  But it wasn’t until I moved to California that I discovered an entirely different kind of apple.  I fell in love with the Fuji, the Pink Lady and the Gala.  These small, crisp, heavenly treats are something like biting into a juicy candy.  They are by far the sweetest apples I have ever tasted and it’s hard to believe that such a snack is actually fresh fruit that is good for you.

Although it’s been some time since I’ve owned a Superman lunchbox, my noon meal at work never seems complete if it does not have an apple to serve as a final flourish like a sweet punctuation mark.

And no, I won’t trade you!

Not even for a Ring Ding or a Devil Dog.

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Oranges

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.

Desert Spring

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I don’t need to look at the calendar to know that winter has given way to spring.  Out here in the desert, three indicators clearly announce that March has arrived:  The fair, the heat and the first fruits.

The fair is in town this week in all its schlocky, throwback, family fun glory.  Kids from the high school perform, stuffed animals line the midway, the rides whirl and everyone eats cotton candy and funnel cakes.  The 4-H Club and the FFA strut their stuff; for weeks, I’ve heard nothing but tales of whose son has the finest pig and what prices the livestock auction will fetch.

As for the heat, well, March is the start of the long desert summer.  While New England suffers under yet another foot of snow, we have already had two days on which the mercury has reached 95 degrees.  We will likely hit the 100° mark before the end of the month, where the midday temperature will stay put for the next six or seven months.

Although I’m not a big fan of the fair and the relentless heat gets old quickly, I always look forward to the return of some of the best fresh fruit anywhere, just in time for Easter and Passover.  My treats today were an incredibly sweet, juicy red plum and some explosively tasty blueberries (photos above).

And let us not forget the flocks of birds that nest in our tree, sing us shrilly awake each morning and poop all over our cars.

Apparently, however, not all of our avian friends are keen about celebrating springtime in California.  I hear the Argentine cliff swallows have not returned to Capistrano this year.