Got distracted by citrus

There is a scene in the 1994 film Little Women directed by Gillian Armstrong in which Jo eats an orange. Played by Winona Ryder, she is sitting at the desk in her room at the boarding house where she’s living in New York, writing. Beside her, there is a plate with segments of orange perfectly arranged in a circle. Pen in one hand, she uses the other to pick up an orange piece. She takes a delicious bite, smiles into the middle distance, writes something down. The orange is a gift from her friend Professor Bhaer, played by the dreamy Gabrielle Byrne — in the previous scene, he hands it to her on the stairs; there’s a close up of the hand-off that is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” 

The care she has taken to peel the orange, to arrange the segments on the plate so beautifully, that she savors each piece instead of eating it whole — these things appeal to me. I’ve long tried to mimic this scene when I get a piece of citrus in my hands. It often ends in disappointment: many oranges are difficult to peel, the segments don’t separate easily, I end up with a mess of pith and rind. But sometimes it works perfectly, the segments separate, I put them in a circle, and then follow Jo in eating them slowly and carefully and savoring them. Other times I put whole peeled clementines in my mouth like a hippo, chomp chomp.

Last year I read John McPhee’s book, Oranges, at the recommendation of a friend. It started as a 1966 New Yorker article on the history of oranges and orange groves in the U.S. and was expanded into a book. I really liked reading it, not just for the subject matter but the style, too — straightforward and largely unstylized, a little boring at parts, that’s fine. My citrus consumption has certainly increased since reading it — it gave me a new appreciation for how special fruit is. I started buying citrus regularly, to make a citrus salad with as many kinds of oranges and grapefruits as the market had, to keep in a bowl to look at and snack on. 

I mostly buy a lot of little clementines and mandarins. They are small and attractive in a bowl or in a bag on your desk and they are an easy and refreshing snack. Though there is a point at which they lose their lustre, become dry, wrinkled, and then wholly unappealing. In wintertime, one can buy mandarins with the leaves on, so beautiful, the green and orange popping against each other. We had a bowl of them this week, and each night after dinner, as we took a piece of the fruit out of the bowl, I had dueling emotions: delight, to eat such a beautiful thing! And sadness, that doing so depleted the gorgeous tableau of my table. This is easily remedied; I shall buy some more tomorrow, and each week until the week when I look for them in the store and they’re gone. I’ll be disappointed, for a moment, and then forget about them — and then they’ll be such a happy surprise when they show up next year. 

There’s another important citrus scene in Little Women: Amy’s limes. The youngest March sister, played in the 1994 film by Kristen Dunst, is bemoaning to her sister that she “owes at least a dozen limes.” Trini Alvarado’s Meg asks, “Are limes the fashion now?” And Amy says, “Of course they are, it’s nothing but limes now. Everyone keeps them in their desks and trades them for beads and things.” I always envisioned these limes as small key limes, treasured for their size, but looking it up now I see that in the book it’s specified as picked limes — lime segments picked in salt brine. They were imported from the Caribbean, but because they were pickled, the import tax was much lower than fresh fruit and so they were sold for just a penny. Oranges, on the other hand, were much more expensive and thus treasured. Another citrus scene: at Christmas breakfast, as the family clears the breakfast table to take their food to a poor immigrant family down the road, Amy reluctantly picks up the orange from the table to bring to the family. 

Anyway: limes. I’ve bought bags of tiny key limes before in honor of Amy. I’ve put them in a bowl and just delighted in them until they shriveled. I’ve bought kumquats for the same reason, just to enjoy their beauty. Each time I’m in the market I pick up lemons and regular limes, there are always some at home, but better to have more than one needs than go without. If there are meyer lemons, that deep yellow color, the smooth, fragrant skin, I’ll sniff them and grab one, too. Grapefruits I only buy for citrus salad, though I primarily think of them of a breakfast food. My father’s parents, my grandparents, retired to Florida and had a grapefruit tree in their backyard. With breakfast they’d have half a grapefruit with sugar sprinkled on top, and they’d extract the segments with tiny serrated grapefruit spoons. Sometimes we’d have grapefruit at home, too, though it never tasted as good as in Florida, though that could be the lack of sugar. If I’m feeling sick, I buy orange juice, gulp it. Last week I was at our favorite cafe and got a fresh-squeezed orange juice that had two inches of beautiful foam at the top — frothy. A new cafe-slash-flower shop opened up a few blocks away recently, we pass it on the walk to work. For weeks it had two tall miniature orange trees flanking the door. Those little bursts of color made me so happy. Last week the trees were gone, moved inside for the winter. 

A new Little Women comes out on Christmas Day. I’ll be home in Virginia, and my mom and I plan to see in in the following days at the local independent theatre there, my brother has said he’s up for it, too — maybe we’ll all go. I’ll get a cookie for the showing, but I’ll be looking out for the oranges and the limes. 

Watercolor by Matt Davis 


Creation of Adam,” by Michelangelo

“Little Women” in screengrabs (v fun) 

“Oranges,” by John McPhee