I learned of this book via 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich, and it’s a neat little find.
John McPhee was tasked with writing a magazine article about oranges. He went down to Florida, did some research, and came back with a 160 page book instead.
In large part this is because oranges, from their history to their cultivation and processing, is so gosh darn interesting. The book fills your brain with trivia and “did you know”s.
The taste and aroma of oranges differ by type, season, county, state, and country, and even as a result of the position of the individual orange in the framework of the tree on which it grew.
Carvone, a synthetic spearmint oil which is used to flavor spearmint gum, is made from citrus peel oil.
Originally published in 1967, McPhee caught the industry at a turning point where American consumers started to prefer orange juice concentrate over the fresh stuff. Concentrate is consistent in taste and texture and doesn’t go bad, making it a hit in mid-century homes. He talks about the manufacturing process, the technical discoveries that allow concentrate to actually taste good, and how it was starting to change the industry. I think it’s especially interesting because we have since turned back to fresh orange juice, and out of all the “how it’s made” videos on Youtube I can’t find one that shows concentrate being made.
The writing is light and easy and often Bill Bryson-esque, though without his self-deprecating humor. There are still funny bits, though. When a farmer picks McPhee up by helicopter to show him the groves:
The helicopter was yawing and swaying in a gusty head wind, and Adams – a youthful man wearing an open-necked shirt and a fiber hat with madras band – was having trouble keeping it on a true course. The problem didn’t seem to bother him. “Isn’t this thing great?” he shouted.
“It sure is,” I said. “How long have you had it?”
“Almost three months.”
“What did you fly before that?”
“Never flown before. There’s nothing like it!”
I liked these adventures and profiles best – talking with scientists at the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station, walking the groves with growers, and visiting an orange baron who was born in a town that wasn’t affected by cold snaps, so much so that it was named Frostproof, Florida.
That being said the middle part of the book, covering orange history, dragged me down. He gives example after example of anachronistic oranges in Renaissance paintings, details the introduction of oranges into different regions over time, and lists their myriad uses over the centuries. There were interesting facts in there but the list-y nature bored me. And do know that this book is a product of its times, so expect some casual and fleeting racism towards native peoples and African-Americans.
Oranges is good for the next time you want a light, interesting, fact-filled read, especially if you need a break from heavier stuff.