The last thing I remember not doing before leaving my last daily newspaper job was going to the Rio Grande Valley to write about citrus. The first thing I remember doing after starting my own food and wine magazine was – going to the Rio Grande Valley to write about citrus.
I think about this memory each year at this time, when the produce sections fill with citrus from those two big guns of the American industry, and of course with much smaller crops from the glorious groves that stretch west from the Gulf of Mexico around Brownsville in Texas. The miles of oranges, satsumas, and especially Ruby Red grapefruit were then and still are very much there. It was my magazine’s first cover story.
The narrative was simple enough, and familiar enough to pliers of the journalism trade, especially in the modern era. Reporter says to editor: I need to travel to X to research my story. Editor says to reporter: You can make a few phone calls for quotes and find some background on the Internet. Reporter says to editor: But this is a special story and I need to go there…
We know who always wins. Not the reporter OR the editor, really. The always-harassed accounting department.
I traveled to the Rio Grande Valley for that first cover story. I tasted oranges in the orange groves, and scribbled notes about family histories while caking my shoes with dark Rio Grande dirt. And I wrote a story that might or might not be that much better than I could have gathered by phone and Internet. But I created a memory that I will relive at the start of each new year.
Among the Old World Meets New World tales I love to tell, Texas citrus (along with its bigger siblings to the east and west) is perhaps my very favorite. With origins in the Himalaya region, citrus first made it out into the Arab world. North Africa proved especially blessed when it came to growing oranges, lemons, limes and their kin. When the more conquest-oriented among this culture set their sights on Europe, they took citrus trees to plant with them.
Logically, the parts of Europe closest to North Africa proved the easiest to conquer and control for as long as seven centuries – the “bad guys,” in Europe’s vocabulary, being called Berbers, Saracens and Moors. That meant that, to this day, Sicilian cuisine bears the unmistakable signs of Arab domination – chick peas, couscous instead of pasta, and sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg in savory dishes. And lots of citrus.
That last truly came into its own when the Moors conquered Spain. Like the “Moorish” architecture and general enlightenment on mathematics and philosophy they brought to an ignorant, benighted land, the Moors brought citrus. And the groves produce there to this day.
The last Moors were kicked back across the Straits of Gibraltar from oh-so-Catholic Spain in 1492 – kind of a busy year, don’t you think? And before long, Columbus and his progeny had introduced “Spanish citrus” to the New World, including of course Mexico. The three primary parts of our United States settled by Spaniards (instead of British or French) were – California, Florida and Texas.
The citrus industry of the Rio Grande Valley is barely a blip on the radar of those two giant growing areas, but it has earned a special place all the same. The valley grows its share of oranges in a dozen sizes, shapes and shades, along with lemons for iced tea and lime for margaritas, guacamole and a host of other Tex-Mex delights. But Texas is the place of origin for the Ruby Red grapefruit, now copied in California and Florida.
The Ruby Red is a Texas Thing, not a California Thing or a Florida Thing. Except it’s really a Spanish Thing. Except it’s really an Arab Thing. At this time of year, every year without fail, I remember the first cover story I chose to write after becoming my own accounting department.
MANDARIN ORANGE PECAN SALAD
You can make your own poppyseed dressing, of course, and peel your own mandarin oranges if you like. But this has become one of my signature recipes over the decades, and I’ve always made it with canned oranges and high-quality storebought dressing.
1 cup poppyseed dressing
2-3 tablespoons syrup from canned oranges
1 tablespoon Fischer & Wieser’s Champagne Honey Mustard
4 cups chopped Romaine lettuce
1 cup mandarin orange sections
1 cup chopped pecans
1 red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup shredded carrot
Prepare the dressing in a bowl, mixing the poppyseed produce with the syrup and mustard. Toss the remaining ingredients with the dressing in a large salad bowl until covered. Serve on salad plates. Serves 4-6. a bowl,