I couldn’t find the bag of apples that I usually buy to throw in my lunch bags for the week (an apple a day keeps the doctor away) so I decided to buy the mixed bag of apples and oranges instead. After all, if I learned anything from My Big Fat Greek Wedding it is that in the end we are all fruit.
My grandfather was of the generation for an orange was beloved, received only once a year, for Christmas. It sat waiting beside a marzipan pig at the dinner table, the perfect clean curve of its spine casting a shadow over the sugared almond beast as the sun casts shadows on earth, a dazzling reminder of the passage of time and the smallness of life.
But I’ve always had this thing with oranges. They’redelicious, it’s true, but they’re also acidic. My relationship to eating oranges is wrapped in trepidation just as the fruit itself wrapped in rind. If I drink too much orange juice I get a very specific stomach ache. If I peel the orange too hastily, I am sure to yellow the whites of my finger nails, bury them irreversibly in the depths of flaky inner rind. The first bite, always battling a tendency to descend into Sunny D commercial simulacrum territory, is so often disappointing. It’s muted by thick chewy skin, interrupted by lingering white rind muscles that tangle the tongue, bittered by engineers who breed oranges against the wishes of the weather, a reminder that the ubiquity of oranges comes at a price.
The color orange has also never suited me. It shifts between clarities. To be orange is not to be the deep red despair of blood nor the fresh yellow hope of daffodils. It is the middle space, an indefinite danger zone that colors warning signs and construction zones. There is an air of fraudulence about it. The fake spray tan is noticeable when it waxes orange. For the plastic kitchens and scratchy couches of the ’60s, orange is almost a guaranteed ticket to the dumpster. Is it the orange in the pigment that chips the paint on cheap pencils? From the Netflix-held prisoners of Orange is the New Black, wearing an orange jumpsuit rather than a beige one is an emblem of exclusion, from civilization and each other. Orange is a mirage. An enchanting beauty native to desert landscapes that persuades travelers to abdicate water, shelter, and sense in pursuit of some unrequited finite.
My last tango with oranges fell in the middle of a difficult birthday and resulted in a too fake vanilla too bright orange cake with a soupy white chocolate ganache that slopped up its dish like the drunk cousin of Tres Leches. A few eager bites in, I decided that it had the unpleasing texture of a used sponge and quickly banished it to the freezer. I realized later that it was the first time in twenty years that no one sang Happy Birthday to me.
It took some time for me to decide what to do with the extra oranges that were not apples. When my mother visited, I was inspired to cut one open for us to share, but as I sliced it open I realized that a tomato is not an apple, and something about oranges and lasagna made my stomach ache. I left the open orange on the counter and watched the flies descended immediately on the unattended flesh while I filled a glass of water. I joined my mother in the living room.
Eventually, I turned to bread. The index of my enormous bread book did have an orange listing, in particular a honey whole wheat orange loaf with candied orange topping. Perfect fodder for the cluster of half eaten pints of Haagen Dazs I had in my fridge. I imagined the beginning of a beautiful new nightly ritual. I was careful to follow the recipe, but something just wasn’t right. The orange honey syrup didn’t thicken—even though I left it boiling while I went to Kroger to pick up aluminum bread pans—but boy did the dough ever. Against my instincts, I’m not sure if I ever follow my instincts, I threw the dough in the oven and prayed that four teaspoons of baking powder really be enough.
You can’t teach an old leavener new tricks. The loaves came out of the oven cooked but barely adolesced beyond their dough youth. They they were thick and lumpy beige blobs. The recycleable aluminum pans shone in comparison. I waited for them to cool before tasting a hunk. The orange flavor burst through confidently, but something was wrong. Liking it took conscious effort. I had to ignore the tension in my teeth as I kneaded each bite down. The orange flavor was delicious if you imagined what it could be the next time around, perhaps yogurt instead of milk would be right, sugar instead of honey, yeast instead of baking soda.
Because of my determination to make peace with the oranges I’d sacrificed for these two, humble, humble loaves, I brought one with me on a trip to Missouri. I needed another opinion. I had used such incredible ingredients, followed the instructions so closely, maybe I couldn’t see it, whatever it was. But when I peeled back the foil to share it with my friend, I saw mold. The aluminum pans now moldy orange coffins. But as a fellow baker and opinion maker, my friend still tried a piece that I rescued from out of the mold had grown. She chewed it thoughtfully and told me it was pretty dry. She felt it too. It wasn’t the mold, something was just… off. I wrapped the loaf in a plastic bag and let it sit in the back of my mind, grieving another failure with oranges for the rest of the afternoon. The next morning, I got up and threw the loaf away. That was that.
On the last day of my trip, we went to the farmer’s market together and saw a stand manned by a gray-haired farmer in an unraveling embroidered t-shirt boasting the best carrot cake you’ve ever had, but it was mysteriously yellow. I had to know. After some cordial greetings, the modern farmer admitted, blushingly, that the yellow carrot cake recipe was off the internet, and the color was due less to the treatment of carrots and than to dilution by other mix-ins—coconut, pineapple, raisin, walnut, just about every fruit and/or nut mix-in that the American palate knows—and lard.
She had a fifty pound tub of Amish lard in her freezer that got her through her summer baking. I, having recently listened to a podcast comparing the merits of butter and lard for pies, interrogated her about her lard experiences. She indulged my questions for a bit before telling me that, for her, the perfect crust for her all came down to a secret ingredient: orange juice.
It’s the best thing, she said. Just a splash will make your crust crisp, strong enough to withstand the sweetness of a heavy fruit topping.
You’ll forget you ever added it.