"Oranges" (1967) was Pulitzer-prize-winning author John McPhee's third book and it begins simply 'in medias res' -- as a pungent celebration of oranges and orange juice. This is a mouth-watering introduction to the different types of oranges, and how various humans consume them. Then, in the following chapter the author takes us to the geographical heart of his story in a Florida orange grove.
All is not sweetness and orange juice in this book, which was written when LBJ was President. Frozen orange juice concentrate was make large inroads into the fresh orange market, much to McPhee's dismay. He stopped at a Florida Welcome Station on his way into the state, and was given "a three-ounce cup of reconstituted concentrate." The motel where he stayed also served reconstituted orange juice so McPhee finally had to buy himself a plastic orange reamer and a knife, and pick his own oranges from a nearby grove.
We meet the 'Orange Men' in the following chapter and learn the details of the citrus-growing industry. You might think this is the boring bit, but nothing McPhee writes is ever boring. Pomologists are an eccentric lot, most of them migrants to Florida from cold places like Kansas, Minnesota, and Great Britain. At the time this book was written, Englishman William Grierson, Ph.D, a former officer in the Royal Air Force, was "trying to keep growers and shippers interested in fresh fruit...despite the tidal rise of concentrate." He considered himself "the leader of His Majesty's loyal opposition."
We also learn from Grierson that, "a citrus fruit is, botanically, a berry" and "The sex life of citrus is something fantastic." (Citrus is so genetically perverse that oranges can grow from lime seeds.) By this part of the book you will be up to your ears in sweet and bitter oranges, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, limequats, citrons, and Persian Limes. If you haven't already run out to the kitchen for a citrus fix, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.
McPhee wanders (as only he can) through the history of citrus, the orangeries of European nobility, the Indian River orange groves, the production of reconstituted orange juice, and throws in a riff on Minute Maid and the old-time orange barons. Go ahead, settle down and drink in this author's delicious prose. His books are much more satisfying than novels.