'Citrus: A History'
By NINA C. AYOUB
Mining peel, pith, and pulp, Citrus: A History (University of Chicago Press) is new from Pierre Laszlo, a chemist who enjoys a cultural ramble.
As with his 2001 book on salt, Mr. Laszlo takes a single subject down many paths, among them botany, commerce, exploration, art, literature, perfumery, cuisine, and a little autobiography. The author recalls a French childhood of "minimal fruit diversity." Even past the deprivations of World War II, citrus was a treat for the holidays, says the scholar, now an emeritus professor at Belgium's University of Liège.
Citrus first spread from Asia, he says, with the Indian conquests of Alexander the Great. Mr. Laszlo links aspects of its further spread and survival to religious groups. In the Mediterranean region, he writes, the Jewish diaspora ringed that sea with citrus as Jews preserved the seeds of a lemonlike fruit essential for autumn's Sukkot celebrations. Later, Muslims established a lasting presence for citrus in Moorish Iberia. Tracing Spanish and Portuguese explorations, the author follows citrus from Old World to New, most notably to Brazil in the early 1500s. There, the story goes, a convict castaway from a Portuguese ship fathered both Brazilian citriculture and dozens of children with indigenous women.
Worldwide, three "true species" — the citron, the pummelo, and the mandarin — developed into thousands of varieties, many with piquant histories. Take the blood oranges of Sicily's Mount Etna. Cool nights after warm days, Mr. Laszlo says, prompt the orange to "blush," creating a scarlet pulp. Or consider today's grocery commonplace, the navel. It began, he says, with a mutation in 19th-century Bahia, Brazil. Its curious name was originally Portuguese, laranja de umbigo, for its umbilicus-like notch. Another fruit, prized but inedible, is the bergamot, or bitter orange, the oil from its rind infusing perfume and heady Earl Grey tea.
Citrus is often fragile, one remembers — witness the lavish orangeries that sheltered royal trees in Europe or the sooty smudge pots that warm modern groves in America. In the author's segments on citrus as commerce in Florida and California, frost and pests are two enemies, but urbanization is another. While California's boosters used images of orange groves to lure settlers to the state's south, they were too successful: The crop retreated inland to the Central Valley.
Having juiced the economy and material culture of the fruit, the author moves to the symbolic. Lush images in poetry are paired with renderings in art. In Dutch still lifes, for example, it was a signal of virtuosity to foreground a lemon, he writes, its rind still attached in spirals from the unclad fruit, the artist detailing the "delicate finery" of peel and the "lacelike lineaments of pith."
Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 54, Issue 12, Page A16