Jim Buchanan

Jim Buchanan

Even though they’re available year-round, the smell of an orange always reminds me of the holiday season.

My first encounter with an actual orange came when I was 6 or so at a Deitz Memorial Baptist Church Christmas Eve service. Sitting in a pew in the flicker of candlelight in the darkened church, I, along with all the other children, was handed a gift bag.

Some years there would be a toy in the gift bag. I recall one year I was given a tractor. This was back in the time when toys weren’t made of plastic that would fall apart if you looked at it funny, but in this case the tractor was made of cast iron.

As I’d had a lot of toys of plastic, and they generally broke within a week or so, the durability of that tractor fascinated me. You could roll it down a hill, off a cliff, and fold, spindle and mutilate it to your heart’s desire, and it suffered nary a ding. I’m not sure whatever became of it; I imagine it’s buried in the dirt somewhere on East Fork, waiting to be uncovered by a bulldozer clearing a house site. I imagine the bulldozer will have a flat.

Anyway, that year I dug through the bag past the sugar sticks, candy canes and plastic-wrapped peppermints.

Well what have we here?

A real orange.

I’d had orange juice, but it was the frozen stuff plopped out of a tube and mixed with water. This thing was different. I puzzled over it a bit. Looked like it came from a tree. For a minute I thought it might be one of those things you shoot from a tree, like mistletoe or a possum, but then figured it was picked, like an apple.

It was a new experience.

Those were days when commerce hadn’t quite gotten the toehold it has on us now, so encounters with new foods happened quite a bit in my youth. I’d heard Mother say she didn’t care much for rice, and being the cook, we never saw it on the table. My first experience with rice came around the same time as my first experience with an orange. I was handed a bag at a wedding. Not knowing I was supposed to throw it at the newly-married couple, I was like “hey, rice. Heard of this. Think I’ll give it a try.”

It was awfully hard and chalky and crunchy, and seemed like a lot of work. Didn’t see how a man could ever fill up on the stuff without losing a set of teeth.

I could see why Mother didn’t like it.

(There was also some bird seed mixed in with the rice. It wasn’t bad).

Oranges were different. I liked the frozen stuff from the tube, but the fresh item was different. It was fun to separate in wedges to eat, and the juice from it just plain tasted better.

Said juice was obtained from a device called an orange reamer, a contraption consisting of a shallow glass reservoir with a raised glass nub in the middle. Mother was quite good at using one; whenever I tried all I got was juice on my hands, arms and across the kitchen counter in general, with only about a teaspoon where it was supposed to be.

Years later I came to realize the orange in the gift bag was part of a tradition both old and new. The original orange story involved the original St. Nicholas back in fourth century Turkey. He heard the tale of a poor shopkeeper who couldn’t afford dowries for his three daughters. St. Nick chucked three gold balls down the fellow’s chimney, where they landed in the girl’s stockings hanging by the fire to dry.

Oranges, being a lot cheaper than balls of gold, took the symbolic place in the tale. Here in America an orange in the stocking might be the only gift for a kid during the Depression, and were certainly a welcome exotic rarity for kids like me in later years.

The enjoyment of orange juice is directly correlated to its freshness. The frozen stuff is generally fine, although you’ll occasionally come across a batch that sits on your stomach like battery acid.

Years back, after spending 40 or so straight years in these mountains for Christmas, I wound up in southern Florida for Christmas with the in-laws. My father-in-law procured a couple of gallons of juice from a farmer he knew, and it was a revelation. Smooth, sweet, zero acidity, it made me think maybe spending Christmas in Florida could be a thing for me.

Later that day, when we killed two water moccasins on the same green while golfing, I changed that assessment to “reckon not.”

Buchanan is editor of the Sylva Herald.