When there’s nothing else, there are oranges. When there are no strawberries, no blueberries, no plums, no peaches, no raspberries, no apricots, the oranges make their appearance. They come into their own right around Christmastime. When most of the country is covered in thick, white, snow, the most colorful of all fruits—the only fruit that shares a name with its color—comes out.
For a while, I tried to find all sorts of interesting things to do with all these oranges when they are in season. I looked into making marmalade, I explored how to make candied orange slices, I experimented with a juicer. I even found myself talking about turning them into a compote.Then I came to a startling revelation: oranges are perfect. They don’t need to have sugar added to them, they don’t need to be boiled or squeezed. They need only to be peeled, picked apart and eaten. They are easy to pack in lunches. They don’t need to be put into baggies. They don’t need to be washed. Peeled and eaten, peeled and eaten, peeled and eaten. I hear it like a staccato drum beat in my head.
Have you noticed how the more complicated life gets, the more we seek out the simple things in life? Knitting became cool, gardening has gone upscale, hand-me-downs are conservation chic. Cooking is in a category all of its own.
We have two cooking channels on our TV, and we still have the grandmother of cooking television—PBS Saturday mornings. There are cooking magazines, of course, and while the internet is mostly powered by performing cats, I believe pictures of what everybody is about to eat rival singing kittens in the amount of bandwidth used.
Then there’s Chez Panisse. As a kid, I knew the name of three restaurants—the Red Barn, Friendly’s and Bob Evans. Now I read about restaurants a lot, I eat at restaurants a lot more than I did as a kid, and I have a “wish list” of restaurants I hope to get to someday. Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, the restaurant that is often regarded as the first to embrace the farm-to-table movement, is on that list. Then it’s sometimes off that list. I’ve read about it, heard about it, and thought about it so much, I doubt there is any way it won’t disappoint. Too much anticipation has a way of doing that. It’s probably best I just keep thinking about it and don’t ever go.
My fascination with Chez Panisse increased a while back when I was listening to an interview with the restaurant’s matriarch, Alice Waters, talking about one of the restaurant’s signature desserts, the locally sourced fruit bowl. It’s either one of the great scams of our time, or a profound act of genius. Is it possible it’s a combination of the two?
The locally sourced fruit bowl. This is the sort of thing that my 82-year-old father would “have a field day” with, as they say. My father would see it as a scam, since he’s eaten a locally sourced fruit bowl at the dinner table all summer long for the past 50 years. Who knew when my mother went to the back yard and picked the raspberries during the two weeks over the summer that they were ripe, picked the peaches as they dropped off the tree, and brought in a cardboard quart container full of strawberries in the middle of June that we were eating a locally sourced fruit bowl? Or maybe we weren’t: the fruit usually never lasted long enough before we ate it to find its way into a bowl and onto the dinner table.
The genius of Alice Waters is that she’s helped reacquaint many of us with the simple, inherent beauty of food in its purest form. The scam presents itself when we find ourselves believing its worth more when it’s in her restaurant than in our backyards.
Is there a recipe out there that can do something to improve upon an orange? Maybe there is—and I’m open to that—but I haven’t found it yet. What I did find was a sign along the highway that said “local oranges,” and a man selling the oranges who gave me a brief approximation of where the oranges came from. So for now, during the time of year when this is little else ripe, every day at lunch, and sometimes for dinner, too, I enjoy oranges as part of my own locally sourced fruit bowl.