School lunch is a terrible thing.
If the mystery meat, wasn’t terrifying enough to make you lose your appetite, the warm milk was probably enough to make you want to gag. I always wanted to be the cool kid who brought their own lunch to school, but there was one day a week when I was thrilled to be eating school lunch.
Mandarin orange day.
The one day a week when the side dish was edible. The one day a week when the side dish was sweet and dessert like. The one day of the week school lunch was enjoyable because there was a delicious sweet treat of baby oranges on my plastic tray.
At the age of seven I was a discriminate eater and I wanted my oranges canned and covered in syrup, thank you very much.
Post-elementary school I lost my love of canned oranges and other foods covered in sweet syrups opting instead for fresh fruits and vegetables most of the time. The result of this meant eating oranges when they were in season and the price was low. Always around Christmas time my mother would come home with a huge case or two of oranges.
Christmas Eve my mother faithfully put one orange in each child’s stocking. A tradition as familiar to me as hanging the stocking itself. The oranges were so important to our Christmas ritual that two years ago when the citrus was absent from our stockings, my youngest brother and I had to ask where the fruit was. (The requisite candy canes were missing, too, but it was the oranges that mattered.)
As a child, I was mesmerized by this delicious fruit. I always imagined it grew in some exotic place, not realizing most of the oranges I ate came from Florida or California, I was content to dream of far off islands with perpetual summer and blue skies. The bright bite of a tangy orange always made me dream of summer–the fresh burst of citrus brought with it the promise of summer.
In the market one day, I noticed a bag full of small oranges. There were small and a bit squished as though they’d been packed too tightly in their shipping crate, each orange managed to look a little square. I picked the bag up, thrilled at the prospect of enjoying oranges once again.
In true Asian fashion, the oranges didn’t quite meet with my previous expectations. They were different–the skin more dimpled, the color more vibrant, the smell more intoxicating. As I peeled the first orange out of the bag, the pungent smell of pine trees and oranges wafted my way. Immediately I was nostalgic for my parents’ house at Christmas time with the wood-burning stove heating the house, the smells of turkey, oranges and burning pine filling the air. My brothers arguing over which crappy movie to watch. My dad reading on the couch. My nieces and nephews screaming as they race excitedly from room to room examining each others’ new toys. It was as if every memory I’ve ever made in my parents’ house struck me with a fondness I never knew I had for freezing nights on Thoreau-esque farms.
As I bit into the first slice of orange, I realized this is the first time I’ve ever eaten a fresh mandarin orange. And it’s the first time an orange has made me dream of Christmas.