Oranges – John McPhee

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It’s the season for vitamin C so I read John McPhee’s wonderful book about Oranges. McPhee digs deep into his subjects and hands up plenty of quirky info-bits that you never knew about the most mundane things. Oranges, ubiquitous in juice at the breakfast table, sliced and served chilled, chocolate-dipped or grated into muffins and scones, are not so mundane and their peculiarities and history make for interesting reading.

Oranges breathe like we do. They breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Unlike trees. Are we in competition for our polluted air? Oranges come from China—what doesn’t? Columbus brought the first oranges to the Americas, along with a few other less fortuitous imports from Europe. And, when you see oranges in those lush paintings of the Last Supper, remember that they are an anachronous addition of the Renaissance painters who dropped in a bit of color—even though Christ probably never saw an orange in his life as there were none in the Middle East back then.

Once upon a time, when you crossed the state line from Georgia into Florida with your station wagon full of restless kids and a long haul to Miami in front of you, you would stop at the Welcome Station. There you could get maps and such but the real reason for the stop, aside from the clean bathrooms, was the free, fresh-squeezed orange juice they handed you. Fresh-squeezed is nothing like what you get at the grocery store. It is nectar of the gods, golden, sweet, a tiny bit tart and fabulous. I can’t remember if they allowed you seconds.

The color of an orange does not reveal its ripeness, sweetness or the color of its juice. A green orange might be fully ripened when you cut it open. Cold is what causes the outer skin to turn orange so, in tropical climates where the weather never actually gets cold, the citrus fruit you eat and squeeze into bright orange juice is green. And, just to add to the confusion, fruit that turns orange in a chill, before it is truly ripe inside, can revert to green as the weather warms and it finishes ripening.

Cold can wreck a grove as well as turn it a lovely, marketable color. A prolonged freeze can split a tree trunk and destroy the fruit so Florida’s grove owners try various tactics, from overhead sprinklers that coat the trees with a slick of ice that protects the fruit until morning, to burning tires and smudge pots or oil heaters between the rows, to wind machines that mix cold ground air with warmer upper air to raise the temperature. But a real freeze will do serious damage no matter what strategies are in place and significant portions of annual crops have been lost to freezes.

Plant an orange seed and you might not get an orange tree. I found that hard to believe but McPhee says an orange seed could just as easily produce a grapefruit tree. Orange groves are made from planted root stock on which the buds of the type of orange desired are grafted. The tree is pruned so the graft takes over and produces pre-selected oranges on demand.

McPhee recounts historical mentions of oranges, the early European fascination with the blossoms and the decorative swirl of the peel rather than the edible fruit, the way oranges have been diverted into frozen juices, flavoring crystals, concentrate. There is so much more to oranges than breakfast and a slash of golden sun in gloomy winter. Track down a copy of Oranges and read it on some dark day. It will make you thirsty.

Oranges  John McPhee | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   2000

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