Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review: Oranges by John McPhee

John McPhee's books are so reliable. I was looking for something short, engrossing, but not emotional. His nonfiction musings are always filled with facts and fascinating, but are very removed. Is that partly because he wrote it 40 years ago? Perhaps. It is odd that his new introduction (from 2000) doesn't update anything - just talks about how he came to wrote this article/book. That wasn't a big question I had though - if you know anything about John McPhee, you know he can explore in depth ANYTHING.

I always remember the scene in Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder when she goes to her first grown-up birthday party, and there are oranges served! That was the best part of the night! Laura obviously knew what it was on sight, but she didn't know how to eat it, as she had never had one before even though she was a teen. As McPhee points out, serving oranges at a fancy meal was long a symbol of how important your guests were. Although it's a little funny how hard they were to middle-class and certainly lower-class people to get, and yet they were not just a staple but a mandatory part of sailor's diets (which is why Brits are called "limeys" - from eating limes.) In fact, the reason there are citrus trees on islands throughout the Pacific and Atlantic oceans is that they were planted by sailors to replenish their stocks, to ward off scurvy.

There are fascinating accounts of people eating broiled grapefruits, and how for centuries oranges weren't eaten at all - they were simply smelled and looked at. When they were used in cooking, it was just as a seasoning. The concept of eating an orange is pretty recent.

This book was written not too long after the perfection and dominance of concentrating orange juice. That is explained in detail, as is the art of picking a tree, the precise soil and weather conditions that make Florida so perfect, and how grafts are made. Citrus trees are unique in that you can graft any citrus onto any citrus. And you can do multiples! You can have a tree growing oranges, grapefruit, limes, and kumquats all at once! In fact, if you were to plant a seed from your orange - you have no way of knowing what will grown. You could get a tangerine or lemon or lime. In fact, at one point scientists were trying to seed trees of a particular type, so they planted 250 seeds, and got 2 of the trees that they wanted. The surprise was that they got so many out of such a small sample of seeds!

Valencias bloom 14 months before their orange are ripe, so they are the most beautiful as they both have all their blooms and their ripe oranges at the same time. Green oranges aren't bad at all. In fact, they can be perfect and perfectly ripe, but we just don't understand that so green oranges don't sell. Oranges can be made to orange chemically or by dyeing.

Naturally, I read this book while eating a grapefruit (sorry, I didn't have an orange in the house.) When I was a little kid, I used to eat lemons like how people eat oranges. My parents thought I was a weird kid.

Coincidentally, there was an article yesterday on NPR about problems in Florida citrus groves.
I received this book from the publisher. It was before I started my blog, and was given to me with no expectation of review on my part.


Jeane said...

Sounds like such an interesting book. And now I know, that even though my daughter really wants to plant seeds from an orange she ate, we probably won't get an orange tree!

Ann Summerville said...


Ellie said...

Oh dear... I was trying so hard not to keep buying books, but this one sounds fascinating! I have a real weakness for books that explore every facet of something we take for granted, especially foodie ones. Oh well, just one more book won't hurt, right?