Citrus Season

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.

In those days, the oranges we bought were exclusively Valencias, thin-skinned and tight with juice. They were all from Florida, and some of the sacks 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.

Felder Rushing said that we’ve had had citrus growing on the gulf coast since the late 1700s, “But oranges they kept getting wiped out by hurricanes and the hard freezes of the late 1800s and again in the 1930 that sent freezing temperatures down to the Keys. The cold-tender citrus plants are grafted onto the strong, disease-resistant rootstock of trifoliate orange, and when the ‘good’ citrus gets killed by cold weather, the trifoliate part grows 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,” Rushing said, “but most of those acres have been reclaimed for other crops. There are still a few orange groves, but the big citrus crop is the relatively cold-hardy satsumas.”

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, an attribute that also makes them popular. They can be grown from seed, which takes about 8 years until the first fruits are produced, or grafted onto other citrus rootstocks, such as trifoliate orange. The fruit is exceedingly sweet, easy to peel and many cultivars are seedless. The Louisiana crop ripens from October until late November.

Citrus taxonomy is recklessly convoluted, but satsumas are in the big mandarin category, which contains all the zipper-skinned [easy-peel] fruits. They probably originated in northeast India but like most citrus fruits were cultivated in China and then brought to the west. The Satsuma mandarin may have originated in China but is was first reported in Japan more than 700 years ago.  Around 1878 they were introduced into the Louisiana citrus industry, where they were preferred for their sweetness and their cold hardiness. 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.

Joseph Ranatza Jr., owner of Star Nursery in Plaquemines Parish, said he started picking on Oct. 7. “My season is going very well this year versus last year,” he said. “Last year, the grocery stores bought a lot of foreign fruit, and that really hurt us.” It’s hard for Louisiana growers to compete with foreign producers, who have lower labor costs and less restrictions, he said. “They can buy these clementine mandarins from Chile, Peru and Morocco, where labor is a lot cheaper, and call them ‘cuties’ and make it hard for us to compete,” Ranatza said. He said his answer to the “cuties” are his Cajun Babies, which are smaller-sized satsumas.

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

Makes 1 (9-inch) cake

Ingredients
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.

The Star

It is three thousand light years to the Vatican. Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed that the heavens declared the glory of God’s handiwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled. I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer, and for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.

I have told no one yet, but the truth cannot be concealed. The facts are there for all to read, recorded on the countless miles of magnetic tape and the thousands of photographs we are carrying back to Earth. Other scientists can interpret them as easily as I can, and I am not one who would condone that tampering with the truth which often gave my order a bad name in the olden days.

The crew are already sufficiently depressed: I wonder how they will take this ultimate irony. Few of them have any religious faith, yet they will not relish using this final weapon in their campaign against me–that private, good-natured, but fundamentally serious, war which lasted all the way from Earth. It amused them to have a Jesuit as chief astrophysicist: Dr. Chandler, for instance, could never get over it. (Why are medical men such notorious atheists?). Sometimes he would meet me on the observation deck, where the lights are always low so that the stars shine with undiminished glory. He would come up to me in the gloom and stand staring out of the great oval port, while the heavens crawled slowly around us as the ship turned end over end with the residual spin we had never bothered to correct.

“Well, Father,” he would say at last, “it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world–that just beats me.” Then the argument would start, while the stars and nebulae would swing around us in silent, endless arcs beyond the flawlessly clear plastic of the observation port.

It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused most amusement to the crew. In vain I would point to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I would remind them that my order has long been famous for its scientific works. We may be few now, but ever since the eighteenth century we have made contributions to astronomy and geophysics out of all proportion to our numbers. Will my report on the Phoenix Nebula end our thousand years of history? It will end, I fear, much more than that.

I do not know who gave the nebula its name, which seems to me a very bad one. If it contains a prophecy, it is one that cannot be verified for several billion years. Even the word nebula is misleading: this is a far smaller object than those stupendous clouds of mist–the stuff of unborn stars–that are scattered throughout the length of the Milky Way. On the cosmic scale, indeed, the Phoenix Nebula is a tiny thing–a tenuous shell of gas surrounding a single star.

Or what is left of a star . . .

The Rubens engraving of Loyola seems to mock me as it hangs there above the spectrophotometer tracings. What would you, Father, have made of this knowledge that has come into my keeping, so far from the little world that was all the universe you knew? Would your faith have risen to the challenge, as mine has failed to do?

You gaze into the distance, Father, but I have traveled a distance beyond any that you could have imagined when you founded our order a thousand years ago. No other survey ship has been so far from Earth: we are at the very frontiers of the explored universe. We set out to reach the Phoenix Nebula, we succeeded, and we are homeward bound with our burden of knowledge. I wish I could lift that burden from my shoulders, but I call to you in vain across the centuries and the light years that lie between us.

On the book you are holding the words are plain to read. AD MAJOREM DEI GLORIAM, the message runs, but it is a message I can no longer believe. Would you still believe it, if you could see what we have found?

We knew, of course, what the Phoenix Nebula was. Every year, in our galaxy alone, more than a hundred stars explode, blazing for a few hours or days with thousands of times their normal brilliance before they sink back into death and obscurity. Such are the ordinary novae–the commonplace disasters of the universe. I have recorded the spectrograms and light curves of dozens since I started working at the Lunar Observatory.

But three or four times in every thousand years occurs something beside which even a nova pales into total insignificance.

When a star becomes a supernova, it may for a little while outshine all the massed suns of the galaxy. The Chinese astronomers watched this happen in A.D. 1054, not knowing what it was they saw. Five centuries later, in 1572, a supernova blazed in Cassiopeia so brilliantly that it was visible in the daylight sky. There have been three more in the thousand years that have passed since then.

Our mission was to visit the remnants of such a catastrophe, to reconstruct the events that led up to it, and, if possible, to learn its cause. We came slowly in through the concentric shells of gas that had been blasted out six thousand years before, yet were expanding still. They were immensely hot, radiating even now with a fierce violet light, but were far too tenuous to do us any damage. When the star had exploded, its outer layers had been driven upward with such speed that they had escaped completely from its gravitational field. Now they formed a hollow shell large enough to engulf a thousand solar systems, and at its center burned the tiny, fantastic object which the star had now become–a White Dwarf, smaller than the Earth, yet weighing a million times as much.

The glowing gas shells were all around us, banishing the normal night of interstellar space. We were flying into the center of a cosmic bomb that had detonated millennia ago and whose incandescent fragments were still hurtling apart. The immense scale of the explosion, and the fact that the debris already covered a volume of space many billions of miles across, robbed the scene of any visible movement. It would take decades before the unaided eye could detect any motion in these tortured wisps and eddies of gas, yet the sense of turbulent expansion was overwhelming.

We had checked our primary drive hours before, and were drifting slowly toward the fierce little star ahead. Once it had been a sun like our own, but it had squandered in a few hours the energy that should have kept it shining for a million years. Now it was a shrunken miser, hoarding its resources as if trying to make amends for its prodigal youth.

No one seriously expected to find planets. If there had been any before the explosion, they would have been boiled into puffs of vapor, and their substance lost in the greater wreckage of the star itself. But we made the automatic search, as we always do when approaching an unknown sun, and presently we found a single small world circling the star at an immense distance. It must have been the Pluto of this vanished solar system, orbiting on the frontiers of the night. Too far from the central sun ever to have known life, its remoteness had saved it from the fate of all its lost companions.

The passing fires had seared its rocks and burned away the mantle of frozen gas that must have covered it in the days before the disaster. We landed, and we found the Vault.

Its builders had made sure that we would. The monolithic marker that stood above the entrance was now a fused stump, but even the first long-range photographs told us that here was the work of intelligence. A little later we detected the continent-wide pattern of radioactivity that had been buried in the rock. Even if the pylon above the Vault had been destroyed, this would have remained, an immovable and all but eternal beacon calling to the stars. Our ship fell toward this gigantic bull’s-eye like an arrow into its target.

The pylon must have been a mile high when it was built, but now it looked like a candle that had melted down into a puddle of wax. It took us a week to drill through the fused rock, since we did not have the proper tools for a task like this. We were astronomers, not archaeologists, but we could improvise. Our original purpose was forgotten: this lonely monument, reared with such labor at the greatest possible distance from the doomed sun, could have only one meaning. A civilization that knew it was about to die had made its last bid for immortality.

It will take us generations to examine all the treasures that were placed in the Vault. They had plenty of time to prepare, for their sun must have given its first warnings many years before the final detonation. Everything that they wished to preserve, all the fruit of their genius, they brought here to this distant world in the days before the end, hoping that some other race would find it and that they would not be utterly forgotten. Would we have done as well, or would we have been too lost in our own misery to give thought to a future we could never see or share?

If only they had had a little more time! They could travel freely enough between the planets of their own sun, but they had not yet learned to cross the interstellar gulfs, and the nearest solar system was a hundred light-years away. Yet even had they possessed the secret of the Transfinite Drive, no more than a few millions could have been saved. Perhaps it was better thus.

Even if they had not been so disturbingly human as their sculpture shows, we could not have helped admiring them and grieving for their fate. They left thousands of visual records and the machines for projecting them, together with elaborate pictorial instructions from which it will not be difficult to learn their written language. We have examined many of these records, and brought to life for the first time in six thousand years the warmth and beauty of a civilization that in many ways must have been superior to our own. Perhaps they only showed us the best, and one can hardly blame them. But their words were very lovely, and their cities were built with a grace that matches anything of man’s. We have watched them at work and play, and listened to their musical speech sounding across the centuries. One scene is still before my eyes–a group of children on a beach of strange blue sand, playing in the waves as children play on Earth. Curious whiplike trees line the shore, and some very large animal is wading in the shadows yet attracting no attention at all.

And sinking into the sea, still warm and friendly and life-giving, is the sun that will soon turn traitor and obliterate all this innocent happiness.

Perhaps if we had not been so far from home and so vulnerable to loneliness, we should not have been so deeply moved. Many of us had seen the ruins of ancient civilizations on other worlds, but they had never affected us so profoundly. This tragedy was unique. It is one thing for a race to fail and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth. But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors–how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?

My colleagues have asked me that, and I have given what answers I can. Perhaps you could have done better, Father Loyola, but I have found nothing in the Exercitia Spiritualia that helps me here. They were not an evil people: I do not know what gods they worshiped, if indeed they worshiped any. But I have looked back at them across the centuries, and have watched while the loveliness they used their last strength to preserve was brought forth again into the light of their shrunken sun. They could have taught us much: why were they destroyed?

I know the answers that my colleagues will give when they get back to Earth. They will say that the universe has no purpose and no plan, that since a hundred suns explode every year in our galaxy, at this very moment some race is dying in the depths of space. Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end: there is no divine justice, for there is no God.

Yet, of course, what we have seen proves nothing of the sort. Anyone who argues thus is being swayed by emotion, not logic. God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the universe can destroy it when He chooses. It is arrogance–it is perilously near blasphemy–for us to say what He may or may not do.

This I could have accepted, hard though it is to look upon whole worlds and peoples thrown into the furnace. But there comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter, and now, as I look at the calculations lying before me, I know I have reached that point at last.

We could not tell, before we reached the nebula, how long ago the explosion took place. Now, from the astronomical evidence and the record in the rocks of that one surviving planet, I have been able to date it very exactly. I know in what year the light of this colossal conflagration reached our Earth. I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shone in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in that oriental dawn.

There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

(The Star, Arthur C. Clarke, copyright Arthur C. Clarke)

 

 

The Man Who Loved Christmas

If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.

And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.

Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.

The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.

He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.

The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t.  It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.

(Written by Sellers Gale Denley, first published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984)

Jess Jr. to the left with his brother-in-law Jim Young as Santa.
Jess Jr. to the left with his brother-in-law Jim Young as Santa.

Barbara’s Giblet Gravy

Barbara Yancy took a great deal of pride in her table and was a superb cook, but like many (if not most) such people, she was an absolute tyrant in the kitchen (both characteristics she passed down to her daughter), demanding absolute obedience to instruction and perfection in results. Her Thanksgiving table was a symphony of flavor, and her crowning note, the one dish made at the last possible moment and brought to the table with a flourish once everyone was seated before the blessing, was her giblet gravy, which was only made for the holiday table and had to be done just so.

You must use a quart of the clearest, richest broth thickened while hot with a thin paste of corn starch and water. To this add the yolks of at least two eggs which have been creamed with a pat of butter. Then add two more chopped hard boiled eggs (yolks and whites), the cooked and chopped livers and gizzards of the turkey as well as the hen you used for your stock ( a half cup or so of each), but not the meat from the necks, which she considered superfluous as well as “messy-looking”. Salt to taste and season with white pepper.

I agree with mother about chicken neck meat, but when I add chopped green onions to my gravy, I can just hear her heavy sigh of disapproval.