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Eating local helps us appreciate the rare exceptions
The bleak mid-winter has me thinking about the humble orange, found every year in the toe of our Christmas stocking, and munched on while we plowed through the rest of the loot. Through the years, those stocking contents changed, but the orange was a constant. To us, it was just an orange, not a symbol of a bygone era. We didn’t realize that long ago, before goods were routinely shipped around the world in all manner of carbon-emitting vessels, oranges were the scene-stealing pièce de résistance at Christmas, interrupting a winter of eating beets and potatoes from the root cellar and whatever you managed to kill out on the back forty. Back then, the 100-mile diet wasn’t a choice.
My daughter had this book called An Orange for Frankie, about a dad who drives a horse and buggy through a snowstorm to intercept a Florida train so his nine kids can each have one orange at Christmas. Presumed dead, he shows up with the oranges, and the children cherish each little section as if it were a piece of the sun.
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Nowadays the kids would probably push Dad back out into the blizzard, admonishing him to come back with a Nintendo DS. Our Danish aunt tells us of receiving an orange one Christmas from an uncle who had travelled to Italy. After savouring the fruit, she and her siblings saved the peel for two months, scratching it and inhaling the fragrant oils. That was in Copenhagen, half a century ago, well before the invention of the Scratch ’n Sniff marker.
There are still places in the world where an orange at Christmas, or any gift of food, would be met with a great deal of excitement. However, in this place of plenty, where new stores are upwards of 30,000 square feet, it’s hard to feel that kind of thrill for anything.
The season for naval oranges lasts from December until May, peaking January through March. Besides vitamin C (130 percent of the daily value in each one), oranges contain beneficial phytonutrients in their zest.
And they are relatively safe to eat. The Environmental Working Group places them squarely in the middle of its “Pesticides in Produce” list: With one being the least residue and 100 the most, oranges score 46. Most of the navel oranges you see in the supermarket come from California or Arizona.
Kids are growing up in a world where the stores never sleep; you can buy shoes or skis or Atlantic lobsters online at two in the morning. The boats, the locomotives and the trucks keep on coming. Stores the size of Mirabel airport burst with, at the high end, fine European goods that promise to transform you from a Canadian hoser to a cultured aesthete. At the low end, there’s Costco, with its super-sized jars of mayonnaise next to the case-lot of Slim-fast, keeping your gaucheness intact.
I tell my daughter that the Nintendo DS she wants must travel all the way from China, on a ship that pollutes the air and the oceans, and sometimes the ships spill oil, which kills the fish and birds, and the government, in its wisdom, plans to expand the ports, roads and bridges, putting pressure on sensitive ecosystems, so more ships can bring over their useless crap that nobody needs! And don’t get me started about China’s coal-fired energy plants, and the manufacture of plastic! And the landfill problem!
Her brow furrows. “Hmm,” she says. She’s getting it, clever girl! Then, a few hours later I overhear her lamenting to a friend, “I can’t get Nintendo because my Mum hates China.” And just because we adults understand these cause-and-effect relationships doesn’t mean I don’t have a bottle of Argentinian Merlot sitting on my counter, and a banana that’s a little jet-lagged from its journey from the equator. If you’re used to having something, whether it’s cheap wine, or bananas or Provençal soaps, it’s like there’s a bubble around you and your banana that, you rationalize, is outside the problem. For heaven’s sake, one banana isn’t going to tip us over into climate apocalypse! No wonder the kids are confused.
But gradually our family has made a shift to looking at where our food and the goods that we buy come from. At this time of year we go through a lot of apples and pears, or more accurately, they go through us. And there’s nothing like six months of apples to make the kids appreciate the rare day when I give them an orange. I wouldn’t say they’re quite as grateful as Frankie and the gang, but they do know that around here, oranges don’t grow on trees.