Friday, April 10, 2015

How to Peel an Orange

Part 1
I was never the child known for bringing an orange to school in my lunch bag.  I was barely the child who brought lunch to school. 

When I did convince my mother to pack a lunch for me in a TV sitcom-inspired tin lunch box with matching thermos, my enthusiasm waned at lunchtime.  The food looked unappealing.  Worse, at the end of the school day I could never recall where I had left my half empty thermos.  It was often found under the seat of an overheated car by a sibling who had been unlucky enough to open it up and get a whiff of old milk.   I can still remember the smell of the thing when it was handed back to me to clean.  And, the face of the person handing it back.  I'd promise myself this would be the last time I would try to bring lunch to school.

And then I’d sit near one of the children who brought oranges to school.  They peeled back the skin with deftness and dexterity and unleashed a scent that no perfume could ever match.  Even the 1960’s hit among the pre-teen set, Love’s Fresh Lemon fragrance, was no match for the smell of a freshly peeled orange. 

Inspired, I would bring just an orange to school.   It would lay forgotten at the bottom of a paper bag (lunch boxes were no longer invested in for me) until someone else was peeling back the pockmarked orb and spraying essential orange oil into the atmoshere of our classroom.  I should find that orange, I would think.  They are heavenly. 

Heavenly they may have smelled but my peeling technique was brutish.  Chips of pith embedded themselves under my strong thumbnails where I’d dug in too deep.  Juice squirted out and upwards into my hair, onto my peter pan collar and mostly onto notebook paper where it would pucker the paper and make the blue lines wavy.  A napkin was never at hand; I was a child after all.  It tasted wonderful but the sensory pleasure was mitigated by the sticky trail I left behind and around me.  After a time, it was more pleasurable to enjoy oranges vicariously. 

Part 2
I studied in England during my junior year.  Among the friends I made was a classmate from my college.  I had never met her before.  We’d spent two years on the same small New England campus without ever coming across one another.  And I would have known.  She was an orange eater.  During Spring break, while we rode trains across Europe, she taught me to peel an orange the way her grandmother had taught her.  

Her grandmother was born in Poland.   She and her son survived Auschwitz and that is the short and less painful version of how my friend came to be born in Chicagoland.  Earlier that year, my friend went to the Auschwitz-Berkenau camp that had only recently been opened to the public.  It was hard to talk about.  Instead, she showed me how to peel an orange. 

The key is to use a knife, the old-world, European way.  For my friend’s grandmother, eating fruit without utensils would have been ill mannered.  Fruit was eaten at the dinner table after a meal.  This elegant approach was adapted to train travel using a folding knife. 

The knife does not need to be a sharp one.  I frequently use a plastic knife.  The blade only needs to penetrate through the bright orange skin and sink into the bitter pith.  Carve a circle at the top and bottom of the orange, the poles of your orange planet.  Next, draw the knife down from pole to pole creating longitude lines.  You can create a line for each orange section but you only really need four or five cuts.

With your orange scored, each neatly cut quadrilateral of orange peel will come away with ease.   You will still smell the orange oil as you pull back on the skin and break through the zest to reveal uninjured orange segments.

Every time I peel an orange, I imagine my friend's grandmother,  a petite and iron-strong lady I would never meet.  I imagine her elegant, in furs and polished nails, peeling an orange with a skilled hand as she thinks about a time when peeling and eating an orange was child's play. 

This is how to peel an orange.