The six best things I learned in John McPhee’s book on oranges

I can’t stop thinking about the book. (Previously on the blog.)

1. This machine existed. First paragraph of the prologue:

In Pennsylvania Station, New York City — the old Penn Station, said to have been modeled on the Baths of Caracalla — was a machine that split and squeezed oranges. They rolled down a chute and were pressed against a blade. Then the two halves went in separate directions to be cupped and crunched. The juice fell into a pitcher. You paid dearly for the product.

2. In Greek mythology, when they’re talking about golden apples, they mean oranges. This seems obvious in retrospect, but I had no idea. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, there were some overlap between “fruit” and “apples” as terms. Until this book, I’ve always pictured red apples.

3. Orange seeds don’t necessarily grow orange trees. Citrus seeds grow citrus trees, and the kind of citrus going in and coming out have no real connection. Cultivated, most Florida oranges grow from the roots of a tree that would nature grow ugly and not too delicious lemons, apparently.

4. People loved oranges as treats centuries before the juice came along.

5. Altitude often affects whether an orange tree survives a freeze or not.

6. Because McPhee was reporting and writing the early and mid ’60s and notes how central Florida may be glowing less rural but isn’t there yet, I came away wanting to get myself a time machine — orange-shaped if possible, like the plastic cups they give kids for their juice — and see the unending acres of groves, which by all McPhee’s accounts were beautiful.

Enjoying the mysteries of orange juice

Here, in the aftermath, I don’t know whether the orange juice was good or not. There are so many possible explanations. There are too many possible.

I don’t know whether I’d been drinking Simply Orange for so long that my two cartons of regular Tropicana felt wrong. I don’t know whether reading John McPhee’s glorious book Oranges (“a whole book about oranges”) just before opening the cartons made me more thoughtful, more critical, of my beloved orange juice. I don’t know if the cartons had refrigeration issues, machine issues, taste issues… or if they were perfectly fine and my trouble with them was just in my head. I poured Lori a glass or two. She declared both cartons fine, completely ordinary examples of not-from-concentrate, mass-produced American orange juice. I tasted again. I wasn’t satisfied.

Now I’m reading the New York Times story on genetically modified oranges and wondering about the orange juice of the future. McPhee’s book, from the ’60s, is straightforward about the concentrate battle and pesticides on the trees, still common today. I find myself with so many questions about my orange juice, and after so long, I am happy to love a drink so much.

John McPhee wrote a whole book about orange juice?

In the Morning News link feed this week, there’s a piece in Design Observer about the design and experience of fresh orange juice vs. a mass-produced orange juice. I don’t feel as much of a need as the author to escape 21st-century juicing, but I like how he puts his love for the old-style methods.

An abiding love for the orange runs long in my family. When I was a child, my grandfather had large sacks of them shipped up to New York from Florida, and he would squeeze them every morning with a giant hand juicer. He liked all fruit, the more exotic the better, but especially oranges, and he traced this fascination to his own early years in the crowded tenement world of New York. The fruits his own father brought home were tokens of a brighter, sweeter, healthier, cleaner and greener world that then existed only in his imagination.

A bonus is finding out in the lede that John McPhee wrote a whole book about oranges and orange juice in the ’70s. I’ve just finished reading his New Yorker story about nonfiction structure, and this book immediately goes in my cart. And tomorrow I’m going to think structure as I drink.

Orange you glad you asked

Today’s best conversation, prompted by orange-juice signs hanging all over Gallery Place: Which came first, the fruit name or the color name?

An oddly well-cited Wikipedia entry answers. “The earliest uses of the word in English refer to the fruit, and the colour was later named after the fruit.” Bonus etymology: “Before the English-speaking world was exposed to the fruit, the colour was referred to as geoluhread (yellow-red) in Old English and Middle English.” Who knew! “Orange” may not have great, exact rhymes. But I sure like it better than “geoluhread.”

The Metro signage led to at least four different discussions of orange juice today. I love orange juice. I look forward to four more tomorrow.

Hard truths about orange juice

Jess: “So, Gil and I went to this Jewish diner on Sunday morning in Philly that had the most amazing juicer I have ever seen. They would literally pour an entire box of whole oranges into the top of it, and it would suck them in, slice them, juice them and dispose of the remains in a container underneath; the front was nearly entirely clear so (we’d see) almost everything. We were sitting at the counter, transfixed. It was like watching something at a science museum — for juice.”


Not a good start to the day

When you raise the orange juice glass for the first gulp of the day and miss, bouncing it off your front teeth. Fortunately, the kind of snow that fell last night is “sweepable snow.” And the rumor-rejecting Irish Times cheers us all up with a question for DCist: “Do you know how to get a hold of the people who post on the Internet?”

(DCist also informs me the LBJ Grove and the rest of the Boundary Channel-ed Columbia Island, while being on the Virginia side of the Potomac, are actually part of Washington, as are the rest of the Potomac’s islands. How do I not know this?)

Bolthouse II: Return to Bolthouse

I don’t think I’d ever tasted Bolthouse Farms orange juice before Sunday night, but the juice made me think I had. It was fresh, full-tasting, and moderately pulpy without needing to specify so on the front of the container.

What the bottle did say — on the side — was this: “Five servings of fruits and vegetables are recommended every day for good health … and you are holding more than 4 of them.” Number style issues aside, the selling point sold me. After finishing one of the two bottles I bought, on sale two for $5, I was orange-filled and pleased.

I’ve always taken my orange juice seriously, at least as seriously as one can take orange juice without time and a juicer. Which is probably only a little bit seriously. But in that capacity, I’d say Bolthouse has created a true contender against Simply Orange. If only the prices would drop, I’d banish the concentrates from my fridge.

Worst idea yet today

Orange juice after blueberry cornbread.

In other news, the world’s major media outlets tell me that Baby Jessica has grown up and graduated from high school. Having been seven years old at the time, I feel like I missed the boat. Maybe you do too. Please join me in a rendition of Generation Y’s connection to Baby Jessica — We’re Sending Our Love Down a Well from Radio Bart.