The orange tree was already in the backyard when we moved into the house we live in. So, at the top, I want to make it clear that we are probably the laziest produce growers in the greater Santa Monica area. We didn’t plant the tree and give it years of tender loving care. I never once stayed up all night, protecting the young fruit from freezing temperatures. I’m not sure we even recognized that it was a fruit tree until that first month it started yielding oranges. Tiny, hard, mean little oranges that tasted terrible and really couldn’t be used for anything.
Still, there’s something about a tree that sprouts food that is undeniably cool and more than a little Zen. All of which translates into this existential observation from friends when they notice that fruit is hanging from one of your trees: “Wow, oranges. Let’s make some screwdrivers!” But in those early years, the oranges weren’t very good and we mostly coasted on the positive vibe that hanging fruit added to our backyard. We weren’t just home dwellers; we lived on an estate that had a one-tree fruit grove. “And this is our orchard… would you like to see the polo ponies?”
In California the positive features of one’s home are often pulled into conversation way before any mention of children or schools or earthquakes or reality shows. So we started working the orange tree into every rundown on our place. Sometimes we’d visit someone who had a beautiful, inviting full-size swimming pool in their backyard. To camouflage our envy we’d find a way to work the orange tree into the dialogue. “That’s a lovely pool. I’ll bet when your kids are done swimming they’d enjoy a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.” We’d neglect to mention that, at that time, the juice from our oranges tasted more like Listerine than a refreshing poolside beverage.
The wait for better oranges got longer when friends who had a mature avocado tree in their backyard would give us bags of their full bodied, delicious avocadoes. Avocadoes are possibly the most utilitarian fruit on earth. Salads, appetizers, guacamole, perhaps someday a source of fuel for our cars… it’s hard to imagine life as we know it in SoCal without avocadoes. Avocadoes were also used in ancient Mayan beauty regimens. Mash a fresh ripe avocado and apply it evenly to your face. Avocadoes are also thought to be something of a sexual stimulant, although that’s when eaten and not worn. Our friend’s avocadoes were useful in so many ways; our tiny hard oranges were barely interesting to invading raccoons and possums.
We were also at a loss to figure out any kind of “season” for our orange tree. Except that, one day, we’d just notice that there were some oranges and we’d pick them… always hoping that this time they were going to be sweeter. Finally, nature gave us those sweeter, juicier oranges.
That was about a year ago and recently the oranges have been really good. They’re still a little small-ish, but now they’re sweet and make really wonderful juice. My sister and her husband, hearing about our new better-tasting crop, sent us a terrific juicer that uses arm-power instead of electricity… and I went nuts. I squeezed oranges nearly everyday and thanks to that juicer, developed a right arm like Popeye’s. We had our own juice for breakfast. We offered fresh juice to anyone visiting, and ultimately… dude, we made those screwdrivers.
All America is now looking at growing food in the backyard, because of the recession and because their kids have come home so often from school with projects involving planted seeds and beans that home-grown produce was inevitable. In either case, let me point out that nothing says “neighbor” like sharing the yield of your garden. There’s an earth-to-person connectivity about giving away home-grown produce that is much richer and deeper than other neighborly gestures, such as lowering the price on that “Battlestar Gallactica” lunch box at your yard sale.
I’ve also gotten great pleasure from sending the oranges to my mother back in the Midwest, especially the ones that were ready early this year as snow still lay on the ground where she lives. I’ll make a witty little “label” for the box (“Santa Monica Grove/ No Pesticides, Radiation, or Silicone Implants”), and then wrap the oranges in tissue paper as though they were from Harry and David instead of Steve and his occasionally edible fruit-bearing orange tree. Mom gets a real kick out of it. And for a few moments, anyhow, we don’t miss having a swimming pool or an avocado tree.