A Christmas Orange

Did you get an orange in the toe of your stocking for Christmas? Despite the piles of glistening oranges tempting us year ’round at the grocery store, winter really is citrus season. And oranges, like all citrus fruits, used to be a rare and precious treat – hence the fruit’s appearance in Christmas stockings. Even after oranges became more widely and regularly available in the mid-20th century, my parents still threw a few in my stocking each year (though it may have been an effort to counterbalance my all  – Christmas cookie diet of the preceding week).

Oranges are believed to be natives of China. In some languages, the word for ‘orange’ actually means Chinese apple – apfelsein in German and sinaasappel in Dutch, for example. The ‘apple’ name got tossed around a lot in fruit history as many round, brightly colored edibles got tagged with the name before finally getting their own unique identifier.

Despite being linked to apples by name, oranges didn’t travel overland to colonize Asia and Europe like the apple. As Waverley Root notes in Food, “there were no oranges in the hanging gardens of Babylon, they are not mentioned in the Bible, and it is questionable whether the ancient Greeks knew them.” Oranges, instead, came by sea, carried to Europe by Arab traders and explorers. The Romans grew them but they were rare and expensive so they didn’t gain the cult following of the apple, which the Romans cultivated at least 24 varieties. Oranges mostly disappeared with the fall of Rome.

The Moors revived the orange in Europe, conquering Spain and covering the region from Granada to Seville in citrus orchards that remain prevalent to this day. The streets of both cities, but especially Seville, are lined with orange trees that sag under the weight of the fruit in the winter. I made the mistake of eating one of the oranges on a tree in Seville, not realizing they were the bitter, Seville orange that is the principle component of what I only half-jokingly refer to as my mortal food enemy: marmalade. It now made sense why the Spaniards just walked by the free food hanging above their heads.

The bitter oranges of Seville

Christopher Columbus brought oranges to the New World, one of the rare instances of a European explorer bringing something good along with them. Columbus planted them on Hispaniola in 1493, and the climate of the West Indies proved so conducive to the fruit that the islands were soon covered with orange groves.

Hernando de Soto is on record as bringing the first oranges to what is now the United States, though he may not have been the first.  Either way, oranges were growing in abundance in Florida by the late 16th century, and the state remains the country’s leading producer of oranges. And the leading producer of Christmas oranges.


Winter Thickens the Blood (or so they say)

There’s an old saying that “winter thickens the blood.” It’s an old wives’ tale, though, as temperature doesn’t have much to do with the thickness of blood – at least in humans. Some hibernating animals do get thicker blood in the winter to help them prepare for the cold. It’s one winter survival strategy.

Me? I like to get my blood pumping in the winter for physical and mental health. No hibernating here. Course, it helps to be 2,000 miles from home in the much milder climes of the Pacific Northwest.

The misty forests flanking Mt. Constitution

The Coffee Cure

T.S. Eliot measured out his life in coffee spoons. Scottish historian and philosopher Sir James Mackintosh claimed that “the powers of a man’s mind are directly proportioned to the quantity of coffee he drinks.” Many other coffee drinkers would probably agree.

In 1803, German physician Samuel Hahnemann claimed that coffee was purely medicinal and nothing more. The founder of homeopathy, Hahnemann drew a careful distinction between ‘food’ and ‘medicine.’ “Medicinal things are substances that do not nourish, but alter the healthy condition of the body,” Hahnemann wrote in On the Effects of Coffee. Medicines taken by a healthy person “deranges the harmonious concordance of our organs, undermines health and shortens life.” For Hahnemann, coffee fell into this category of harmful substances, potentially responsible for all of man’s suffering and ill health. Coffee was the cause of impotence, sterility, rickets, insomnia (pretty true actually), stammering, melancholy, and malicious envy among other conditions.

Hahnemann - No black coffee for him

Hahnemann’s feelings about coffee seem to stem from his personal dislike of its flavor rather than anything scientific, though. “No one ever smoked tobacco for the first time in his life without disgust,” he wrote, and “no healthy person ever drank unsugared black coffee for the first time in his life with gusto – a hint given by nature to shun the first occasion for transgressing the laws of health.” Hahnemann clearly needed to ask for “room” with his order.

Hahnemann certainly wasn’t blind to the benefits of coffee, though, especially in the morning. His description seems to describe several people I know and to explain the Starbucks empire: “In the first moments or quarters of an hour after awaking…everyone who is not living completely in a state of rude nature, has a disagreeable feeling of not thoroughly awakened consciousness, of confusion, of laziness, and want of pliancy in the limbs.” He goes on to explain how coffee “removes this disagreeable situation” as “we suddenly become completely alive” with each sip.

Two decades later, Hahnemann realized that perhaps he’d been too hasty in his condemnation of coffee. He wasn’t ready to fully embrace coffee but maybe it wasn’t the sole cause of man’s fall from health.

Millions of coffee drinkers agree.

Lefse in the Family

“It just isn’t Christmas without lefse.” It’s a phrase I’ve been known to say many times over the years as I eagerly tear into the foil wrapped package of lefse sent express from my grandma’s kitchen in Illinois to my childhood home near Seattle.

Growing up, the tortilla-like Norwegian flatbread (often made with potatoes, especially in Scandinavian-American communities, but not necessarily in Scandinavia itself) was a special treat – even if my uncle often compared it to a cloth napkin in flavor and texture. He just didn’t get it.

Like her Norwegian ancestors, my grandmother usually makes lefse once, maybe twice, a year, freezing small packets of lefse to last throughout the year. Truth be told, lefse making is chaos incarnate, which perhaps explains why a year’s supply is made in one fell swoop. The sticky, gummy dough sticks like library paste to the grooved rolling pin and counter tops, while a thin layer of flour covers every horizontal surface in addition to your face, hair, clothes, and the inside of your eyelids.

The dough is no match for my grandmother, though, whose slight frame masks a fierce rolling skill. The dough quickly becomes thin enough to “read the newspaper through,” her constant refrain as she rolls and watches my feeble attempts to match her dexterity. Good lefse requires careful discernment of the right amount of flour, the proper temperature of the griddle or pan, and the perfect temperature of the dough, neither too warm nor too cold.

I helped her some years, though I may have messed it up more than I helped. The grilling is one area that I’ve managed to master with aplomb, lifting the dough in one swift swoop of my sword-like stick, laying down the edge, and rolling it out quickly so it lies flat on the round lefse griddle. Thirty seconds or so later, the lefse needs to be flipped. Timing is everything in achieving the perfect balance of knobby brown flecks and bubbles on the pale rounds. A whole batch can take all day.

Moving to Wisconsin, I was shocked to learn you can buy lefse in the grocery store – nearly all of them in Madison have at least one brand. As with all things, though, homemade – grandma-made -is best.

It turns out lefse skill runs in my family. While scanning some newspaper articles my grandma had saved, I found an article in a Minnesota paper featuring my great-grandmother and her lefse recipe. It turns out, according to the article, that she, too, didn’t think it was “Christmas without lefse.”

My great-grandmother, Anne Anderson, lefse superstar


A Thousand Miles on a Single Street

Marcel Proust once said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” It’s a line I sometimes tell myself as I walk roughly the same route to work that I’ve walked for the last nine years. Sometimes it’s an admonishment – a jolt back from a daydream of some imagined land and life – as quotes, even good ones that you totally agree with, often become when thrown in your face by family members, coworkers, or Oprah. And other times it’s a reminder to notice even the small changes visible all around every day.

Saturday morning broke numbingly cold – 9 degrees and who even wants to know about the wind chill. Yet I ventured out anyway, earnestly admonishing myself with another quote, but this one from a friend rather than a dead Frenchman: “You can’t let the weather determine your life – or your wardrobe.” So I headed out, suitably bundled, on a route I walk fairly often. But this time I saw things I’d never seen before.

Maybe there was a clarity to the frigid air that made everything more visible.  Or maybe my brain was too numb to throw up its usual distractions, but how had I never noticed the Art Deco beauty of the State Office Building? Or the stark white trunks of birch trees at the back entrance to a bar?

The more I looked and saw new things, the more I thought about how many times I’ve walked some of these streets – how many miles I’ve walked without seeing. The most shocking one I came up with was State Street, which I walk at least 200 times (conservatively) up and down every year. It’s a mile each way from top to bottom. That’s 400 miles each year on a single street. Factor in my nine years living here and I’ve walked 3,600 miles on State Street alone, more than the width of the continental United States.

And yet despite all these miles, that well-trod path is still littered with new discoveries.

Cooking up the Past

Lifting weights had not prepared me for the strain of beating eggs to stiff peaks with a hand crank beater. Turning and turning and turning, switching arms every few minutes, until the translucent whites began to froth and then, finally, turn to a foamy mass, a moment my husband and I feared might never come. Making breakfast 19th century-style is hard work.

A few Junes ago, we participated in the Breakfast in a Victorian Kitchen program at the Villa Louis estate in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The meal takes you inside the lives of the prosperous Dousman family – or rather the lives of the family’s servants. You don’t just eat the foods of the past – you roll up your sleeves to prepare them using the tools, recipes, and technology of the time. That means hand-crank eggbeaters, wood stoves, and recipes a bit less instructive and a lot more intuitive than today. The jelly omelet team had it far worse than us, though, beating two-dozen eggs, yolks and whites separated, for an hour.

Arriving around 8:30AM, we were quickly divided into teams to take on various tasks. The breakfast menu changes with the seasons, and that June day’s menu included fresh strawberries, bacon fried with sweet peppers, rice waffles served with strawberry-rhubarb sauce, fried Mississippi catfish, a thin bread called Wisconsin cake, and coffee. Some teams worked in the steamy outdoor preserve kitchen, while the rest cooked in the main kitchen with its dim gas lighting and imposing, ornate cast iron wood stove.

Laughter soon filled the kitchen as everyone struggled to complete their assignments. Anxious choruses of “I’m not sure we picked the right job” echoed around the room, followed by encouraging words from fellow participants. You’re never completely on your own, though. The Villa Louis kitchen staff are there to answer questions and to lend a hand to avert a cooking disaster.

About two hours later, breakfast was finally ready. My stomach grumbled fiercely after all this hard work. Everyone sat down to eat at two communal tables adorned with jars of flowers and herbs freshly picked from the grounds in the mansion’s kitchen. Our Wisconsin cakes, which seemed like a sure disaster during the egg beating and mixing process, turned out pretty well, as did everything else that made it to the table. Surveying the breakfast feast before us, all of that hard work definitely paid off: new experiences and a renewed appreciation for electric mixers.

Of Greenhouse Windows

My mom’s greenhouse was always packed with plants, a miniature rainforest on two metal shelves jutting out above our kitchen sink. Spiny plants with thick rubbery leaves; African violets with tauntingly soft but oversensitive velvety leaves; something feathery inside a foggy plastic bubble that required watering through the hole at the top; and a stubby brown root topped with a high ponytail of cascading green leaves.

Some had been with my parents since they were first married in the early 1970s, traveling to Washington State from Illinois from the impossible to imagine time before I was born – a time as distant to me as the old growth forests. “A plant can live that long? Longer than me?” I thought. “No way.”

The greenhouse window was a staple of my childhood. Everyone had one in my 1980s subdivision, though not everyone used theirs for gardening. My babysitter kept hers stacked with mail and the Playdoh masterworks of her charges (mine included – I was a virtuoso with garlic press “hair” on my snowman-like people).

But for us and others who filled it with plants, the window offered a green growing barrier to the outside; something alive in a world that was otherwise dramatically altered and built up by humans. And maybe it was also a bit of longing for another place, a way to nurture something that otherwise had no business growing in the temperate Northwest.

The image of that window popped into my head this morning on my way to work. Unbidden but there and strangely vivid. I could see nearly every plant, and remember the hours my mom spent carefully taking each down from the shelf and varying her watering to meet their specific needs (no water on the leaves of the violets!). Do houses even have greenhouse windows anymore? I couldn’t recall the last time I saw one.

My own plants sit on a windowsill and the floor, enjoying the view, maybe, but missing the camaraderie of the packed greenhouse window.