Orange juice is healthy and wholesome. We drink it because it's fresh, full of Vitamin C and made from the natural fruit of orange trees. Right? Not hardly, says Alissa Hamilton in this darkly absorbing history of the Florida orange juice industry. Even if the carton says "not from concentrate," what you drink when you pour a glass of conventional, pre-squeezed orange juice is wholly industrialized, more a product of laboratory "food science" than of those sunshine-nourished orange groves Bing Crosby and Anita Bryant once pitched.
Hamilton set out to chronicle the orange juice industry's influence on the biodiversity of the sweet orange. When she and Dixi, her Jack Russell terrier-Chihuahua mix, drove to Lakeland, Florida, for four months at Florida Southern College, she hit the historian's mother-lode in the Thomas B. Mack Citrus Archives, presided over by Professor Mack himself, a nonagenarian who had studied the citrus industry for more than half a century "collecting weird and wonderful memorabilia along the way."
Documents Hamilton stumbled across in her "unmethodical" search of the archives--"the only type possible in the disarray," she comments in a wry aside--changed the direction of her research and painted a damming picture of the "wholesome" citrus industry and its "tree-fresh" product. Her discoveries--and the loss of the archives after Professor Mack died--have all the ingredients of a gripping detective story. Unfortunately, this thoroughly researched book is uneven, with long stretches that read more like a dissertation than a popular book.
It's not that Hamilton isn't a good writer. But in her enthusiasm to document the metamorphosis of the Florida orange juice industry from a fresh product to a laboratory evocation, and from individual growers hand-tending orchards of decades-old trees to industrial-scale orchards of trees "depleted" and replaced like worn-out dairy cows, the story bogs down. (The acronyms don't help: I kept stumbling over FCOJ for "frozen concentrated orange juice" and NFC OJ, "not from concentrate orange juice.")
The story in Squeezed, about an industry that became so successful in deceiving the consumer that it may have killed its own market, is an important contribution to the annals of our everyday food and how it is produced and marketed.
"I wrote this book with a modest ambition," Hamilton says in the Preface, "to make you look at your glass of pre-squeezed orange juice differently and begin to see through the opaque packages of food that surround you." She achieves that ambition and more. Although not an easy read, Squeezed is worth the effort.
by Susan J. Tweit
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women