In his lyrical work on the Mississippi Delta, The Yazoo River, scholar-politician Frank Smith says of sharecroppers that “Spending habits throughout the fall inevitably reduced all but the most prudent tenants to a penniless state by Christmas,
… and no money for Christmas finery and festivity plus peppermint sticks and oranges for the children, could wreck the morale of any tenant. Oranges were a standard Christmas delicacy for the poorest of family. Santa Claus tried to get one in each child’s stocking. If the mother was a good cook, she ordered the peeling saved for flavoring a Christmas cake or pie.”
Well after Reconstruction, my father, a child of the Depression, made sure of having plenty of oranges for Christmas. In his time oranges had become symbolic of the Christmas season in the way fruitcakes were for others, and we kept wide shallow bowls filled with oranges and nuts in the living and dining rooms throughout the holidays. Daddy gave sacks of Valencias to nearby families during the holiday season. Our mother would have us children pierce oranges all around with toothpicks and insert cloves in the holes. We would hang these on the tree and mantle and their sweet, spicy scent would fill the room.
The sacks of Florida oranges he bought bore the name Indian River, a designated area on the east coast where the oldest orange groves grew. The Spaniards planted oranges St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, and the fruit was planted widely along the Gulf (viz.: Orange, Texas; Orange Beach, Alabama), but none survived the Great Freeze of 1895, which sent freezing temperatures down to the Keys.
According to Felder Rushing, “Cold-tender citrus plants were grafted onto the strong, disease-resistant rootstock of trifoliate orange. When freezing weather killed the grafts, the trifoliate stock grew into a pretty little thorny shrub with sweet flowers and sour, golf ball-size fruits. A lot of the trifoliate rootstock survived along the Gulf Coast, but most of those acres have been reclaimed for other crops. The big citrus crop is the relatively cold-hardy satsuma.”
A mature satsuma tree can survive down to −9 °C (15 °F) or even −11 °C (12 °F) for a few hours. Of the edible citrus varieties, only the kumquat is more cold-hardy. Satsumas rarely have any thorns; the fruit is exceedingly sweet, easy to peel, and many cultivars are seedless. The Louisiana crop ripens from October until late November. The name “satsuma” is credited to the wife of a U.S. Minister to Japan, General Van Valkenburg, who sent trees home in 1878 from Satsuma, the name of a former province, now Kagoshima Prefecture, on the southern tip of Kyushu Island.
Its fruit is “one of the sweetest citrus varieties, with a meltingly tender texture” and usually seedless. The satsuma also has particularly delicate flesh, which cannot withstand the effects of careless handling, which means you’ll usually only find satsumas in local grocers or roadside produce stands. Satsumas are used very much as oranges in desserts, even entrees and salads, but if you’re feeling really froggy, here’s a particularly ambitious recipe from Louisiana Cookin’.
Satsuma Upside-Down Cake
3¾ cups sugar, divided
4 cups water
24 (¼-inch-thick) slices of satsuma*
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon satsuma zest*
½ cup fresh satsuma juice*
Preheat oven to 350°. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper, and spray with baking spray with flour. Sprinkle ¼ cup sugar in bottom of pan. In a large skillet, stir together 1½ cups sugar and 4 cups water. Add satsuma slices, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove satsuma slices with a slotted spoon, and place on a wire rack to let drain, reserving satsuma syrup. Let slices stand for 30 minutes. Place slices in prepared pan, overlapping slightly. In a large bowl, beat butter and remaining 2 cups sugar with a mixer at medium speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes, stopping to scrape sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together milk, zest, and satsuma juice. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture alternately with milk mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Gently spoon batter over satsuma slices, smoothing top with an offset spatula. Bake for 30 minutes. Cover with foil, and bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes more. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes. Loosen edges with a knife, and remove pan. Invert cake onto a serving plate, and remove parchment paper. Drizzle with ¼ cup satsuma syrup.