When I lived in Washington, the holiday season was never marked for me by fir trees or sparkling lights — no, what truly heralded winter’s icy approach were the boxes of clementines scattered in wild abundance throughout nearly every grocery store in town. Not only were they beautiful — delightful little orange fruits astonishingly unblemished by their travels — but they were the perfect size to tuck into pockets or lunchpails, their aroma lightly fragrancing the surrounding air.
I’ve read that that clementines — the tiniest variety of mandarin oranges — originated in Spain and North Africa, and became popular here in the States after the Florida orange freeze left suppliers scrambling for alternatives. Perhaps that is another reason, then, they seem a bit special and exotic to me; they are from another place, and carry the history of their origins with them.
Clementines were the bit of the tropical I sorely needed when iron grey skies promised snow and biting winds whipped through my Adams Morgan neighborhood, and I bought them up as quickly as the stores could replenish them. When a freezing rain fell, one of the small, seedless fruits could transport me for a moment to a deserted Moroccan beach — I could almost feel the hot sun beating down on the sand, the warm breeze whispering around my toes. One year I even sent them off in care packages to my uncle and brother, and threw in a couple to rattle around my dad’s February birthday box.
This year, I am back in California, experiencing the long turn into winter for the first time in 10 years in a place where the seasons gently ease into one another. Some people bemoan the West’s lack of ‘true’ seasons, but I will admit freely that I would much rather live in a temperate, coastal clime than one that requires I pile on at least five articles of clothing before leaving the house.
This is not to say I will not miss the occasional thick snowfall Washington receives about once a year, though I am grateful not to have to trudge through it. Still, despite Northern California’s recently sunny skies, here in San Francisco the air is still chilly, and the holidays are still upon us. And I am still loading up on boxes of wonderful clementines.
M.F.K. Fisher wrote a lovely little story about one of her “secret indulgences,” published in “Serve it Forth”; while waiting for her first husband, Al, to come back to their flat by the Rhine, she placed sections of tangerines on newspaper atop the radiator for hours and then came back: “On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready,” she wrote.
I often think of this essay when I eat clementines. They are so sweetly perfect that I can eat three or more in one sitting without much effort. They are juicy without being overly so, and their thin skins make for easy peeling. Each segment is full of delicious citrusy liquid, and snap satisfyingly between the teeth. Their orange-y fragrance is pleasant enough you might not even wish to wash your hands after eating. To eat them seems decadent, expansive.
I have not cooked with clementines; I prefer to eat them raw, fresh, and as-they-are. I’ve thrown them neatly separated into spinach salads, but my favorite way to consume them is quite simple: to peel, and eat.
Today, after nearly two weeks of glorious sun, a grey sky threatens rain and a storm front is expected to blow through the Bay Area this weekend. But I have a bowl-ful of clementines glowing softly on my table in the gloom, a reminder that somewhere the sun still shines and a warm sea laps gently against the shore’s edge — and I will try not to mind the wet too much.