pierre laszlo

Citrus review by Natural History

Citrus: A History,

by Pierre Laszlo (The University of Chicago Press, 2007; $25.00)

Can one describe a work of nonfiction as being happy? Well, this one is. Pierre Laszlo, a retired chemistry professor turned science writer, has approached the lore of citrus fruit with the élan of a master chef (the man is French, after all), mixing history, economics, biology, and chemistry to produce a book that will bring a smile to readers of every taste. Until reading Citrus, in fact, I had not realized just how many tastes the title implied: lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit, of course, but also citron, tangerine, kumquat, calamondin, and the self-descriptive Ugli, not to mention such variants as bergamot, mandarin, Valencia, ortanique, and Honey Murcott. Laszlo’s literary method is to present them as characters in an unfolding story. He begins with the domestication of the citron in Persia and the early history of citrus horticulture, then moves to the establishment and growth of the citrus industry in Florida, California, and Brazil, and finally, after many diversions and digressions, arrives at a final section that explores the place of citrus in literature, art, religion, and the culture of cuisine.

There are many surprises along the way. For instance, orange juice seems such a natural way to imbibe the fruit that it is difficult to imagine a breakfast without it. Yet until the 1920s, there were no efficient methods of bacterial disinfection, preservation, or distribution for such a perishable product. As a consequence, for those outside the citrus belt, fresh orange juice was a rare and expensive treat. According to Laszlo, it was an adman, Albert D. Lasker, who created the orange juice market almost single-handedly during a season when growers were saddled with a glut of excess fruit. At the time, new technologies had been developed that made it possible to pasteurize juice and transport it around the country far more efficiently. Lasker pounced: he launched a “Drink an Orange” campaign, which prompted the American public to adopt OJ as a tasty and healthy start to the day. The golden liquid got an added boost in the 1940s when growers learned to turn it into concentrate and flash-freeze it into compact cylinders. Open the freezing compartment in virtually any American refrigerator back in the 1950s and you’d find at least one can of Sunkist, Minute-Maid, or Tropicana.

Did you know that citrus peels are as ubiquitous in the modern household as the juicy fruit inside? The peels, it turns out, are filled with essential oils that can be turned into a wide variety of products. Limonene, for instance, found in most citrus peels, serves as the raw material for the molecular synthesis of many drugs. And since one variety of the limonene molecule invokes the sensation of oranges, while another variety is lemony, the two molecules are also used to impart flavor to a wide variety of soft drinks. It’s probably safe to say that, just as American breakfasts usually include orange juice, American lunches, at least of the fast-food variety, often include orange peel in the form of limonene-flavored soda.

Lest prospective readers worry that Laszlo has composed a paean to fast-food and industrial agriculture, note that he also includes a sampling of elegant citrus recipes that may induce readers to head for the kitchen. Among them is one for a wonderful Brazilian cocktail, the caïpirinha, another for sea bass with tangerine juice, and a third for an elegant tarte au citron. Good reading, good eating, and good humor make for happy reading. One might sum it up with a bon mot best resisted: If you love citrus, this is a book with appeal.