When I was a little girl, I always got an orange in my Christmas stocking. I would have preferred chocolate, but oranges were traditional. My parents got oranges in their Christmas stockings, and so did their parents, because back in the day, oranges were an amazing, exotic treat in northern locales.
Also, perhaps, because citrus crops are harvested in the winter.
Today, oranges are less special, thanks to big growers and modern transit. In fact, most of America’s seven million tons of oranges are now processed and turned into juice. When I shipped some belongings to college, a crate of oranges leaked all over my stuff — some of which wasn’t washable. One of my Florida classmates loved to come into my dorm room and sniff. “It reminds me of the orange processing plant back home,” she told me.
There are probably citrus trees in half the backyards in Southern California. Orange County, in fact, used to be filled with orange groves – hence the name. People from the Northeast find this unfathomable. I have relatives and friends who will insist on sending me Florida citrus every Christmas. Which is sweet, but my backyard looks like this:
When Baby Brother and his Excellent New Girlfriend came from NYC for a winter visit, they stopped in Palm Springs first for a romantic weekend alone. On their first early morning run, Excellent New Girlfriend spotted a grapefruit tree. She’d never seen a giant Oro Blanco grapefruit just hanging over someone’s back fence, ripe for the taking.
So she took it. Then she sprinted back to the hotel with the purloined grapefruit wrapped in her shirt, exhilarated by her treasure, yet terrified someone would call the police.
Baby Brother immediately dubbed her the Grapefruit Thief. He told me the story less than five minutes after they’d arrived at our house.
“The best part,” Baby Brother gleefully related, “was that when we got back to the hotel, there were complimentary grapefruits offered with breakfast! And by the pool! And at lunch!”
“But they weren’t as good,” the Grapefruit Thief argued, “My grapefruit was biggest and best and I’m lucky no one chased after me to get it back.”
Andy laughed so hard he was incoherent, mystifying the native New Yorker.
I explained. “There are so many citrus trees around, no one would care. If they saw you take one, the owners might run after you – but only to give you a bag and tell you to pick all you wanted!”
“No!” the Grapefruit Thief shook her head vehemently, “No way! No one would give away grapefruit.”
“No, really, they totally would. Grapefruit and oranges and lemons? They’re like…zucchini back east. They all ripen at once, the fruit is enormous, and people can’t get rid of them fast enough. Then you have to worry about rats.”
First Nephew grew up in snowy New Hampshire. The closest he ever got to an orange grove was his daily orange juice, fresh from a carton — until he came to visit us as a tween.
He loved being able to run around the neighborhood and shoot Nerf guns in shorts in December.
He didn’t love the fact that we did not have his beloved orange juice carton in the refrigerator. He sighed the first day. He whined the second day. The third day, he complained loudly.
For the third time, I reminded First Nephew there was an orange tree outside and he could pick his own oranges if he wanted them so badly.
“I don’t want oranges, I want orange juice.”
Irritated, I said, “Listen, mister—”
Andy stood and interrupted. “First Nephew, get up.”
“What?” asked First Nephew. But he got up from the table. “Why?”
Andy only said, “First Nephew, follow me,” and led him into the yard.
“What are we doing?” asked First Nephew.
Andy handed First Nephew a telescoping fiberglass pole with a basket on one end and took him to the orange tree. He said, “Reach up with that, and pick some oranges.”
After First Nephew had a bucketful, Andy led him to the hose. He handed him a vegetable scrubber. “First Nephew, wash those oranges.”
“Why? I said I didn’t want an orange.”
Andy didn’t answer. First Nephew washed the oranges. When he finished, Andy handed him a towel and said, “Now dry the oranges and take them inside.”
First Nephew said, “But I told you, I don’t WANT an orange. I want orange juice!”
Andy merely repeated, “Dry the oranges and take them inside.”
“But I don’t want—”
“First Nephew, cut them in half.”
Sulkily, First Nephew cut the oranges in half. I had the juicer ready when he finished slicing.
Andy said, “Now, First Nephew, put the orange on top of that juicer and press down.”
First Nephew pressed. The juicer rotated, scooping out the inside of the orange and pressing against the peel. Juice flowed into the pitcher below. After several oranges were juiced, Andy poured the juice into a glass.
He handed the glass to First Nephew and said, “Drink this.”
First Nephew took a sip of his fresh orange juice and complained, “It’s pulpy!”
Since Andy looked like he might explode, I took over, placing a strainer over another glass. I said, “First Nephew, pour your juice into this glass.”
First Nephew did. I handed the strained glass of juice back to him. He drank it down and declared, “That’s the best orange juice ever!”
Then he said,