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Orange crush

(article, Lucy Burningham)

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Cast your mind back, way back, to the pre-Internet days, before the USDA defined “organic,” to the era when Rachel Carson revealed the impact of chemical pesticides in Silent Spring. Books that explored the way we grow, process, and eat food — let alone just one type of food — were rare. 

But John McPhee, a reporter for Time and the New Yorker, decided that delving into the minutiae of a single foodstuff could unfurl a whole juicy world, just like a carefully peeled orange.

In the mid-1960s, McPhee had written two books, about basketball and private schools. Looking for a new topic, he found that he couldn’t stop thinking about two citrusy things that he’d seen: a machine in Penn Station that sliced and squeezed oranges for fresh juice, and an advertisement by the Florida Citrus Commission showing four identical oranges, each with a different name.

McPhee produced a two-part article about oranges for the New Yorker in 1966, and expanded the pieces the following year into a short, simply titled book. But as anyone who’s read one of McPhee’s 30 books knows, nothing he touches is simple — especially a fruit that is eaten in quarters in Nepal, halved and used to clean floors in Jamaica, and served with sugar and whipped cream in Switzerland. Oranges answers a flood of questions about everything from seeds, straws, concentrate, and floor polishes to skin, rind, frost, mythology, oil paintings, and pickers.

In the U.S., each of us consumes between four and six gallons of orange juice every year; this breakfast habit propels a good portion of the book. At the beginning of Oranges, McPhee has trouble finding a fresh glass of orange juice in Florida. Despite being surrounded by orange groves, the lure of the consistent sweetness of juice made from frozen concentrate had seduced Floridians as well as the rest of the country. McPhee investigates the booming concentrate industry, and visits a plant where oranges are scrubbed with detergent, split, reamed, and crunched by aluminum teeth. Here McPhee writes with a vividness that makes a machine called the “In-line Extractor” seem both cruel and amazing:

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/theDman" caption="Low-hanging fruit."]

bq. It has a shining row of aluminum jaws, upper and lower, with shining aluminum teeth. When an orange tumbles in, the upper jaw comes crunching down on it while at the same time the orange is penetrated from below by a perforated steel tub. As the jaws crush the outside, the juice goes through the perforations in the tube and down into the plumbing of the concentrate plant. All in a second, the juice has been removed and the rind has been crushed and shredded beyond recognition.

McPhee has a wry ear not only for mechanical tensions but human ones as well: 

bq. An orange grown in Florida usually has a thin and tightly fitting skin, and it is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a 10-ton truck and not even wet the pavement.

McPhee illustrates how the fruit shapes the lives of the people who work with it — farmers, pickers, and citrus researchers — by letting them speak in long, uninterrupted monologues about everything from grove-dwelling creatures to grafting and freezes. (Growers spray their trees with water before a freeze; the trees survive thanks to a thin sheath of ice.) He punctuates his information-packed prose with quirky lists, such as the names of the 23 kinds of insects encountered by citrus farmer Art Mathias, who, atypically for a citrus grower, actually eats the fruit he sells.

The OJ industry has changed since the 1960s; these days, frozen concentrate only accounts for 8 percent of retail orange-juice sales. But McPhee was on to something. In small slices, the details in Oranges seem like a delicious and memorable testament to a single fruit; by the pound, they become a meditation on the complicated beauty of the way we eat.

p(bio). Lucy Burningham is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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