Oranges, Oranges

Summer has faded away, though warm days still linger, and I find myself marking how fresh figs, peaches, plums and nectarines vanish from the market. Of these I miss figs the most, their season is so short, and the dried version of a fig is such an inadequate substitute—it’s almost a slur on the original. Yet thanks to California and Florida, as well as some far-flung regions of the world, oranges will always be with us.

In the morning, in the absence of summer fruits, I begin to fully appreciate an orange cut in quarters beside a piece of toast and a cup of coffee. Or if not an orange itself, then a small glass of orange juice, part of an ideal breakfast. But as John McPhee, in his book titled simply Oranges, reminds us:

Bolivians don’t touch orange juice at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day.

McPhee’s book is, as the title suggests, all about oranges, and the first few pages take the reader on a breath-taking tour around the world, elaborating on the various ways an orange can be enjoyed:

In the principal towns of Trinidad and Tobago, oranges are sold on street corners. The vendor cuts them in half and sprinkles salt on them.

Salt! I never would have thought of doing that (still haven’t tried, either). But why not? Meanwhile, at the other end of the taste bud spectrum,

The Swiss sometimes serve oranges under a smothering of sugar and whipped cream.

Like some sweet glacier atop the Alps, it seems, dessert as a geographical metaphor. In Ireland, oranges serve as an unlikely (to us) snack food:

Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at people on the screen.

What must Irish movie theaters smell like, by the end of the film? A tropical plantation, perhaps, the scent—as well as those flung peels—adding its own commentary to the goings-on flashing across the screen. It seems there’s no end to the human imagination, always on the lookout to transform the potential in anything ordinary, even a piece of fruit:

Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice.

When I lived in the villages of the Beng people of Ivory Coast in West Africa, I was stunned at first by the local way of drinking orange juice. With a sharp, short knife, a Beng child (usually surprisingly young) would pare the rind off an orange carefully, so as not to nick the whitish skin beneath, but also swiftly—there seemed to be a certain amount of pride connected with this. After the orange had been shorn, a complete rind would fall to the ground, like some colorful Mobius strip.

Once I picked up one of those rinds and held it tentatively back together, though now it circled air, only the idea of an orange. Anyway, when the orange had been sheared like a sheep the thirsty child would cut off a thin slice from the top, exposing the moist fruit within. Head raised and holding the top to her mouth, she’d squeeze the orange until the juice poured out—instant orange juice from an all-natural cup. Once done, the scrunched orange would be discarded on the spot, having served its function, where the nearest hungry goat would snap it up.

In time, I managed to learn how to strip the rind off an orange, though painstakingly slowly, and I never managed to slice it to a single unbroken curlicue. I also nicked the pulpy skin often enough to make for a messy experience when I finally squeezed that orange for the juice. Some people just shouldn’t be trusted with a knife.

I think the prize for the most inventive use of an orange must go to the Saramaka people of Suriname in South America. The Saramaka are the descendants of slaves who escaped into the interior of Suriname three hundred years ago and forged a rich amalgam of culture out of their mixed-ethnic African heritages. The Saramaka are famous for making art out of anything: intricate architectural features on their buildings and doors, delicate patterns baked into cakes, elaborately designed decorations on chairs, combs, even bodily scarification marks. And the children can peel an orange into a very cool, sci-fi looking mask:

So that quotidian orange you and I enjoy for breakfast has a shape-shifting pedigree, a transformative potential that won’t easily fit in a juice glass. Add the salt, pour the cream, fling the rinds, and strap on yer goggles!

Saramaka boys photo courtesy of Sally and Richard Price, Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest.

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