Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Christmas Tradition

It somehow seems ironic that we can trace the literal roots of our newest Christmas tradition to the broiling New Orleans summer. We had gone to shop for plants at Banting's Nursery on the Westbank over the Fourth of July weekend last year and came home with a much hoped-for pink grapefruit tree. For me, trips to Banting's, while fun, almost always result in an afternoon of exhausting work planting our purchases in near 100-degree New Orleans heat. It is almost always worth it. Most of our purchases have resulted in a steady beautification of our property. But on this particular afternoon, a friend of ours came over mid-tree planting and managed to lock us out of the house! More accurately, we were locked IN our back yard. With some reaching and climbing, we were able to free ourselves and toast with a cold beverage to a memorable afternoon. (This episode resulted in a subsequent replacing of our gate's latch, padlocked on the outside, to a numeric door lockset.)

Louisiana Pink Grapefruit with morning dew. Taken with Sony A77/16-50 2.8

When last spring came, our little tree held forth with all manner of fragrant white blossoms. Jessie, the practical one, suggested that we give the little tree a year to grow and remove the newly-formed marble-sized fruit that followed. "No," I said, "I want grapefruit." Nature took care of some of the decision as fruit fell off over the course of the summer, the majority between the quarter and lemon size stage. As Jessie predicted, the branches devoid of fruit grew handsomely, while the half-dozen grapefruit that made it to the fall continued to grow fat.

There are deep historical ties between Christmas and citrus. The origins of the connection between oranges and Christmas go back to old St. Nick himself, a story better told by the keepers of his memory than cribbed here by me. Trade between the Mediterranean (particularly Spain, Corsica, and Sicily) and Northern Europe supplied its manor houses with citrus for centuries. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century it became en vogue to add an orangery to one's estate, making the ability to pluck fresh citrus from one's own trees in drab gray England or Poland the ultimate mark of status. We have no need build an orangery onto our New Orleans home, but we have been known to throw some old bedsheets on the citrus, hibiscus, and other sensitive plants during those rare freezes. Somehow the look is more vagabond than regal.

I have always loved the decoration of the Della Robbia wreaths found in the South (and made by the Boys Republic program in Los Angeles still today) to be an attractive expression of the region's flora. Here in New Orleans we are treated to the fall blooming of bougainvillea and camellia - and the groaning weight of Meyer lemons, oranges, satsumas, and grapefruit bending the limbs of neighborhood citrus trees.

Ready to eat!

Our first grapefruit was just as sweet as we could have wanted. Still firm and a tinge green on the outside, it was a lush pink on the inside, full of juice and flavor. In my mind's eye, I see this tree growing large, producing enormous amounts of fruit and enabling us to share this tradition with friends and family who either don't live here or haven't gotten around to building that orangery.

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