The Social History Of A Singular Fruit

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For more than thirty years it stood at the corner of Highland Avenue and Del Rosa Avenue in San Bernardino, California, bordered at the rear by a line of eucalyptus trees and behind that by a thirty-acre grove of fat green trees that joined others in a march to the foothills of the San Bernardino Range. It billed itself as “The World’s Largest Orange Juice Stand,” and perhaps it was. It was big enough—a monstrous globe about sixty feet in diameter, constructed of plaster and chicken wire over a rickety wooden framework and painted a glistening orange. For a mile or so before you came to it, crude signs along the sides of the roads announced its presence, though they were hardly necessary; rising high above the groves, the stand could be seen for at least two miles.

In the days of its glory it dispensed cold, freshly squeezed orange juice from a fountainlike machine that kept the golden brew in constant motion, spraying it up in thin curving jets for aeration, bubbling and gurgling provocatively. The stand did a fairly brisk business in grapefruit juice and lemonade, too, but it was the juice of the orange that was its mainstay—that, and the oranges themselves, stacked in bins and boxes in shining mounds or stuffed into string bags in bunches often pounds each. The sweet tang of the orange was the smell that pervaded the place like some vaguely exotic perfume that had wafted in from a distant land. There was something unreal about that smell, but there was no denying the reality of the stand’s most persistent sound: a cash register kept in a constant clang.

Then in the early 1950’s time caught up with “The World’s Largest Orange Juice Stand,” as it does with most things in southern California. The land behind it was sold off to a real-estate developer and the fat orange trees ripped out of the earth and replaced with a spread of look-alike houses. For two or three years, the stand stood abandoned. Small boys threw large rocks at it, puncturing its dusty orange hide with ragged holes, and when the Santa Ana —southern California’s version of the mistral —came whipping down the valley through San Gorgonio Pass in the spring, its wind set up an unearthly howling through the structure. Finally, the bulldozers came for it, too, and the stand disappeared. The citizens of San Bernardino did not protest its destruction, nor did the city fathers arrange a proper ceremony to mark its passing. Perhaps they should have, for “The World’s Largest Orange Juice Stand,” like the hundreds of similar stands scattered throughout southern California between about 1920 and 1950, was a kind of monument—one of the last symbols of an age in which a simple globed fruit became the living expression of an entire culture.

 

The orange had come a long way in its journey to the semidesert of southern California and had taken centuries in the passage. Probably first cultivated in India nearly two thousand years ago, where it was called nagrunga , by the fifth century it had spread to most of the civilized world. A bitter, shriveled little thing in its original form, it was generally used for medicinal purposes, although the sybaritic Romans mixed its juice with sugar and drank it down like nectar. The Arabs of North Africa called it naranji , and when the Moors invaded Spain in the early eighth century they carried the fruit with them. By the middle of the fifteenth century much of southern Spain blossomed with its trees, and in the fields surrounding Valencia rich soil and painstaking cultivation had produced a variety that was sweet to the tongue.

The seeds of the Valencia orange were carried to the New World when the Spanish crossed the sea in the fifteenth century. The missionary priests—whose ostensible duty was to harvest souls but one of whose practical functions was to fill the bellies of the conquistadors and their minions—planted those seeds in the fertile, semitropical soil of Mexico and cultivated the resulting trees with Indian-slave laborers. In time, the orange became one of the staples of New World diet, carried from one frontier to another as the thrust of Spanish empire inexorably moved north and west. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the orange fluorished in Sonora and in the long finger of Baja California, and when the decision was made to colonize Alta California in 1769, orange seeds and cuttings were among the baggage hauled north by land and sea.

In southern California the orange found a home. Healthy groves soon sprouted around missions San Diego de Alcalá, San Gabriel, San Fernando, and Santa Barbara, as well as the region’s major civilian colony, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio Porciuncula (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels by the Porciuncula River)—today called Los Angeles, among other things. It was still a subsistence crop, however, fodder for local soldiers and settlers; Spanish laws did not encourage trade of any sort, and even after the more lenient rule that followed the creation of the Mexican Republic in 1821, the California mission orange was little known beyond the galley of an occasional American or British whaler or hide-and-tallow ship.