The taste of an orange

When I was growing up we had a family tradition of a big navel orange in our Christmas stocking. It was always the first thing that had been put into the stocking, so it ended up down in the toe, bulging and round. It was as much a part of Christmas in our house as hard candies and peanuts and presents under the tree. My father often told the story of a Christmas when his parents went to town to meet the train that was filled with items for Christmas and a big blizzard delayed their return to the farm until the day after Christmas. Christmas was delayed for them, but when it came, the parents had a bag of oranges that had traveled all the way from Florida. When he told the story you could almost taste the sweet fruit and what a big treat it was to have oranges in the middle of the winter in North Dakota.

We had a large family, so fairness was part of the planning for Christmas. Our stockings contained the orange, a can of pop (which was a very rare treat in our house), a small box of sugared cereal, hard candies and shelled peanuts. That box of sugared cereal was a doubly rare treat for us. In the first place we didn’t eat cold cereal in the winter at our house. We ate hot wheat cereal or oatmeal. I got oatmeal nearly every day because I had a bit of a food allergy when I was young. Cold cereal was reserved for summer, when I got Cheerios. The only other time we got those little boxes of sugared cereals was at family camp in the summer.

I was thinking about those oranges the other day because the world has changed. We don’t have to wait for a special Christmas train to come with the oranges. Our grocery store has oranges year round. In recent years you can almost always buy small “cutie” or “smarty” oranges that are very sweet, easy to peal and seedless. I often take them as treats when I go to shift briefings at the juvenile services center. It seems that nearly everyone loves them and they make a more healthy snack than the donuts, cookies and bars that show up in those places on a fairly regular basis. There are usually a few left over after I meet with the crew. As a result we almost always have a few oranges around our house.

Lately Susan and I have been taking nearly the same lunch to work each day: a sandwich or a wrap and a small orange. Eaten at the end of the meal, the sweet orange is like dessert - a bit of energy boost to return to the afternoon’s work.

We have learned to take having fresh fruit all year around for granted. We expect to see fresh fruit each time we go to the grocery store. When you think of it, however, having fresh fruit means that the fruit we eat has to come from a long way away. I remember how my dad’s eyes used to light up when he told of oranges that came all the way from Florida on the train from his childhood. Our oranges come a lot farther - usually in the back of a truck. More likely in several different trucks.

Every so often something happens that gives us an opportunity to take a look at the food we eat and all of the people who participate in the process of getting it to us. The spread of the coronavirus in meat packing plants, most notably the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has made us pay attention to the conditions for workers in those plants. Many of the working class families that are dependent upon jobs in the industry are recent immigrants, who despite working long days live in relative poverty. Their harsh working conditions combine with a lack of social supports to make it very difficult for them to live with any degree of security and safety.

When we were talking about that yesterday, we recalled Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. We all had read it. It seems to be a classic of American literature. But when the book was first published, Sinclair was considered to be a muckraker. His book led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and improvements in food safety in our country. He meant it to raise awareness of the plight of immigrants who come to this country in search of freedom and often find themselves trapped in oppressive work and living circumstances. Sinclair famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The thing that amazes me is how little things have changed and how relevant a book that is more than a century old is to politics and work in our country today. The business of transforming live animals into food in a grocery store is ugly and dangerous work and, for the most part, w don’t want to think about it. We want to pick up neatly wrapped packages of ready-to-cook meat, inspected and clean, and take it home to our refrigerators until we cook and consume it. We don’t want to think about what happens in the slaughter houses and packing plants. We don’t want to think about the people who work in those places because it is the only work they can find to support their families.

I’m sure that there are stories behind the oranges that I eat as well as those behind the meat that we consume. Those oranges were likely picked by human hands and placed into boxes. They were likely sorted by others and separated from the ones that were transformed into juice. They were bagged and loaded into trucks and real people with real families drove those trucks long distances in relatively short time to make sure that the oranges were delivered fresh to the store, where others put them onto the display.

The food we eat connects us with the lives of other people - often people we never meet and seldom bring to consciousness. Today, I am thinking of all of those people with gratitude. The sweet taste in my mouth is the gift of many others, some of whom live with a bitter taste in theirs.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!