There was a moment, standing in the book store, the nearby volume clutched in my hand, when I wavered. Hadn’t I read this before? I paged through it once again, nothing seemed familiar. Graphically, it matched the rest of the McPhees on my shelf. It only cost a buck. Sold.
Around page 27 it all came rushing back. A quick visit to the other side of the room confirmed my fears: I’d already read this book.
Luckily, with John McPhee it’s easy to pretend you’re stuck in a hospital waiting room with nothing but a single-story issue of The New Yorker–this story, in fact–to distract you from your worries. There are worse things in a reading life than re-visiting McPhee.
I’ve already said that McPhee has a singular style and is notable for his deep dives into the subjects of his fancy. Deep is, of course, a relative term. You might think 150 or so pages on one fruit is deep, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Except in the course of those pages, you’ll encounter researchers generating hundreds of pages of research on the subject and encyclopedias devoted to it. Distillation, it turns out, is McPhee’s forte.
This volume finds young (he references the year of his reporting early on) McPhee in mostly central Florida. That’s a locale we’ve encountered around here as recently as last week, very often in fictional works. I sometimes think Florida’s role, as a state, is to serve up metaphors for most everything good and bad in this country. About the only things it can’t deliver are winter weather and altitude.
McPhee focuses on an area called the Ridge, a slightly elevated terrain that creates a spine running through the center of the peninsula from roughly Ocala down to about Sebring, though he also ventures elsewhere in the state. This peninsular divide, which is no more than a hundred miles long, is the epicenter of the Florida citrus industry. It was also, in the days before theme park tourism, the place where money grew on trees.
Let me put that in perspective. The timeframe is the early 1960s. Concentrated orange juice is a relatively recent invention, having been patented in 1948. As a business, it’s already generating 700 million dollars a year in sales. Those are 1962 dollars. By comparison, the top 5 supermarket brands of orange juice generated $3.5 billion in sales in 2017. So, big business.
That business is centered in places I know better than the typical destinations in the Sunshine State. The northern end of the Ridge starts just north of Leesburg, a town I knew in childhood because my favorite great aunt and uncle had retired there. The growers association and related businesses are based in Lakeland, a town where a former client was based. The fruit growing emanates from an axis in the Winter Haven/Haines City area.
It just so happens that Mrs. AHC has a good friend who lives in the former burg and teaches high school in the latter town. In fact, I finished writing my graduate thesis on her living room couch, so it’s an area I know reasonably well. Even almost six decades on, much of what McPhee notes–at least in the groves and plants–remains recognizable. The major change, in fact, may be that the field jobs he notes are staffed by African-Americans (Negroes in the polite and proper parlance of the time) are now staffed by men and women of Hispanic origin.
Those trees, by the way, don’t just spit out cash. They’re an agricultural wonder and for all the glamor of recombinating DNA, they stand as a monument to how much humans accomplished without fancy technologies. The most advanced technology in the orchards is grafting, a technique known for so long that a cursory search fails to turn up a date of invention. That tree your friends who relocated to Cali have in the backyard, the one growing five kinds of citrus fruit? That’s a product of grafting. As is the weeping cherry tree in front of my house.
The real technology, of course, lies in the plants where the fruit is transformed into concentrate. That process, in which the juice is separated into its component parts, mixed to a consistent level of sweet and tart and then frozen or reconstituted is one of the wonders of modern food processing. So much so that when McPhee goes looking for a glass of fresh squeezed juice he can’t find it, although he makes his own and a grower eventually treats him to an orange cut from the tree and sliced open so that the fruit became the source of and vessel for the juice.
There’s so much more in these relatively scant pages. The California branch of the industry is mentioned just often enough that we don’t forget it exists. And we’re reminded just how global and long-standing the humble orange is. Originating in southeast China, the fruit made a westward journey, picking up a Sanskrit name (naranga) that morphed into Arabic (naranj ) and followed the diaspora westward along the north coast of Africa and into Europe via the Iberian peninsula.
There, it came to serve many purposes–medicinal, preventative, class-signalling–in social intercourse, entering the realms of art and literature. It also impacted architecture as royals in more northern precincts rushed to outdo each other building orangeries that sometimes bankrupted them. The fruit even entered the political realm, supplying the name for the Netherlands‘ House of Orange and working its way into the Irish tricolor and the names of the suburbs of Newark, New Jersey.
Those last few paragraphs ought to give you some sense of the ground McPhee covers in an incredibly readable fashion. It’s especially appealing if, like me, your mind enjoys odd connections and rambling discursiveness. McPhee’s work even lends itself to fitting in with what you already know. I slipped in that bit about the Irish flag in the last paragraph, but you’d never know it.
It’s Sunday morning. What better time to pour a glass of juice and enjoy the morn.