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Monday, January 11, 2010

Sentimental Old Fruit

When I lived up north in the mountains of Virginia, my mother would send me, for a late Christmas present, a heavy box of Minneola tangelos, the sweetest, most pulpless, practically seedless, thin-skinned balls of heaven on earth. They were as sweet as orange Kool-aid, only natural and nutritionally sound. They look like a big tangerine with an outy belly button.

I would eat as many as I could, and when they started to get too soft, I would juice them and freeze the juice for special breakfast occasions. They were big as a boxer’s fist, and there was enough juice from just one of them to fill a tumbler with nectar.

People in Virginia could barely tell the difference between a grapefruit and a tangerine, so only rarely did I offer to share my bounty of citrus with the uninitiated. If they weren’t stupendously impressed, I would never offer them another one. They were used to buying grocery store fruit or being sent that bred-for-beauty, cosmetically-perfect orbs from the Gift Fruit World in the Greater Disney Area.

Truth be told, the best citrus is seldom the prettiest, as tweaks made from geneticists and plastic surgeons are for visual perfection and extended shelf life. These alterations can sometimes make for a thick-skinned, dry piece of tasteless carnage. Sure, it’s pretty on the outside, but on the inside: soggy packing peanuts. In Florida no one with choices buys from those citrus hacks. If you’re lucky, you own or know someone with trees, or you go to a grower or fruit stand and watch someone slice up samples from the bin you’re buying from. You buy what you taste, not what they ship you.

My mother and stepfather lived on a lake in central Florida and had a rich bounty of maybe a dozen citrus trees, which they grew from infancy and fertilized, grafted, watered and inspected obsessively. The trees, along with my mother’s fish-head-fertilized rose bushes, were dotted all over the acreage.

The little off-square shack was previously used as a weekend getaway. When they bought it, there was no electricity and no running water. The place had been trashed by vandals, and we worked hard to replace the smashed windows, scrape off all the old dirt dobber nests, throw up a little molding, and eventually convince the electric and phone companies to run cable out to the ramshackle joint. That was during my memorable voice-changing years, and I hated going there and being forced to carry five-gallon buckets of hand-pumped water to every citrus tree on the property.

As I grew older and the modern conveniences of life were brought into this Cross-Creeky hovel, the five-gallon buckets were upgraded to a long hose. My mother and stepdad nurtured those trees as if they were the grandchildren my sister and I would never produce for them. Whatever they fed them or did to them, they knew how to coax each tree into creating the sweetest, juice-squirtingest fruit you could ever taste. People in town knew their reputation and would barter for paper bags of their annual crop.

Before a hard freeze would come, my mother would throw all their blankets, including the electric one from their bed, into the treetops to protect them. Since smudge pots were banned years before, they would stay up all night burning campfires near the trees to keep the ice and frost from forming and destroying their small grove. That’s why sometimes the fruit that arrived after Christmas was black with soot, but was nevertheless still the best money couldn’t buy. I would bring one into work each day, and I’d wipe off the soot with a paper towel, peel it, separate the tender sections (Floridians call them “plugs”), and drop them into my mouth. Using my tongue, I would press the plug against my palate, and a sweet spring shower rained down on my taste buds, making them dance with orgasmic delight. My countenance would rise up and my voice box hummed.

My Virginia colleagues would look at me as if I had just eaten a bucket of bait. It’s just an orange, pal.

Eventually, my stepfather died; my mother sold the shack and its perfect little grove, moved into assisted living, had a stroke, and died too. That took a lot of time, and by the time I moved back to Florida, the Minneolas were just a good memory.

I could never find Minneolas in the grocery stores or in local fruit stands down here for the longest time. When I asked for them, no one had ever heard of them.

Turns out the Gift Fruit World in the Greater Disney Area felt that “Minneola tangelos” was not a marketable moniker, so everyone on earth now calls them honeybells. I’m sure you have probably seen them advertised in Parade magazine and seen pictures of the perfectly wax-painted, bell-shaped fruit wrapped tenderly and placed just-so in sterile boxes insulated with fake Easter grass. They charge a couple of bucks apiece for them. In the fall, you pay up front for fruit that is immature, but it comes with the promise of being shipped in January as soon as they’re ripe.

I’ve tasted those beautiful looking bells, but the ones I've had can't hold a candle to Mom's. They do, however, look pretty. I have read some online reviews by people who have bought them from cable shopping channels. These reviewers are people I would ordinarily ridicule, but they frequently describe the fruit as tasteless, seedy, membraney, tough, juicy but bitter, not worth the money, and watery. This is further proof that pretty doesn’t always come with good taste.

Not far from our house, there’s a place called Spike’s Grove, where you can still select the fruit by touch and buy it by the quarter-bushel or more. The second weekend in January we always go there to buy our annual Minneola supply. This time we were lucky to buy them before the hard freezes destroyed the crops and skyrocketed the prices. Gift Fruit customers of the Greater Disney Area might pay forty dollars for prettier fruit than I brought home for $12. I can only assume ours is tastier.

I had my first one yesterday. It was a little on the small size, slightly green on top, but still ripe, and the juicy meat of the fruit had stressed the skin to tight thinness during its outward expansion. It was a little spotted and didn’t have the distinctive, perfect bell shape or much of a belly button. It looked, and tasted like, one of Mom’s.

Maybe my back is giving me problems these days because of the miles I schlepped, struggling with heavy water buckets held with both hands between my toothpick legs. But I’m not going to say it wasn’t worth it. I brought a couple Minneolas to eat at work today, but nobody cared. They’re just oranges, pal.

They have no idea what they’re missing.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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