If Citrus Could Talk, Here’s What It Would Tell You

Citrus is a great illusionist.

Gather round, one and all; our show is about to begin. Prepare to be dazzled, prepare to be dazed, but we warn you—we citrus are masters of disguise and experts at sleight of hand. You think you know us, but no, you do not.

Behold this deck of cards. Pictured on each card is a different one of us: yuzu, kumquat, kaffir lime, and Meyer lemon; satsuma, Minneola, tangelo, and Sumo orange. What names! What flamboyant colors and sweet, bright juiciness! Not to boast, but have you ever met one of us you didn’t like? OK, there was that bitter orange you had the poor sense to bite into once—we admit, we can be astringent.

But all that variety is just an illusion. Here, pick a card. Ah! You got grapefruit, as large as a softball in your hand and bittersweet on your tongue. So distinctive and yet—what’s this? Your grapefruit is nothing but a cross between the pomelo and the sweet orange!

This sleight of hand, you see, is our greatest trick. All the variations, colors, shapes, and flavors of us are nothing more than a shuffling of our four basic building blocks—the spade, club, diamond, and heart of citrus, if you will. And, dear audience, can you guess the fab four? Not a chance, not a chance! They are pomelo, mandarin, citron, and papeda.

They all have their roots in Asia, before nature and humans crossed them over and over again to create citrusy variety. Love to squeeze lemon on your fish dinner? It is actually a citron crossed with a bitter orange. Like a blast of lime in your guac? Nothing more than a lemon bred with a key lime, itself a papeda-citron hybrid. And that grapefruit-begetting sweet orange? It’s merely a combo of mandarin and pomelo.

Truth be told, we simply can’t help ourselves, folks. We cross-pollinate all too easily. Grapefruit pollen can fertilize the flowers of an orange tree; lemon pollen can mingle with clementine blossoms. One of our favorite pranks is when an unsuspecting human plants a lemon seed only to get a different kind of citrus tree altogether. Or one adorned with thorns and no fruit at all! We are remarkably unpredictable, in part because our pollen contributes different genes to every seed (similar to how two human parents can create an infinitely varied set of children). Forget pulling a rabbit out of a hat—with me, you have no idea what the hat holds!

You clever humans haven’t been completely fooled. To bypass the unpredictability, you learned to graft branches—say, of that desired lemon tree—onto rootstock to breed the exact varieties of us you wanted. Nifty!

You also decoded the mystery of our juice. Our fresh-squeezed nectar actually becomes undrinkably bitter in less than a day’s time. This was a persistent problem until World War II. Then some smarty-pants Army scientists, keen to protect troops from scurvy, offered a contract to anyone who made a portable, potable frozen orange juice rich in vitamin C. (Simply freezing fresh OJ turns it into a foul brownish liquid.) It was the USDA that won the prize, by concentrating the liquid without heating it, then—presto!—adding a touch of fresh juice for flavor before freezing the whole concoction.

By this time the war was ending, so Minute Maid—it was called that even then—was marketed to civilians. But get this, dear audience: No one went for it. The company lost a lot of money in its first two years. That was when that old Hollywood crooner Bing Crosby worked some magic of his own. In exchange for company stock and cash, Crosby agreed to put in a good word for Minute Maid every morning on his CBS radio show. “Ken, what’s on the shopping list for today?” he’d ask his sidekick. “Well, it’s Minute Maid fresh frozen orange juice, ladies,” Ken would reply, “and your frozen food store has it.” Sales went from $3 million to $30 million in three short years!

Your attempts to preserve fresh OJ without freezing also were cunning. As juice loses its freshness, its sweetness does a vanishing act—it literally disappears as the juice turns bitter. But your technologists had something up their own sleeves: additives that approximate the taste of freshly squeezed for that “not from concentrate” stuff in your fridge. Today Coca-Cola, Minute Maid’s current owner, has algorithms that analyze a quintillion variables—that’s a one with 18 zeroes!—to optimize its juice’s flavor.

One last trick to close out the show, friends. This whole time we’ve had you riveted on our juicy segments, distracting you from noticing … the citrus peels in our palms all along. Now watch as we deftly squeeze them to release a fine spray of oils. Smell that? Those are our scents. Enjoy them by scraping our exterior or squeezing a twist of skin into a cocktail. Honestly, ladies and gents, that’s the zestiest bit of magic there is.

Creamy Orange-Fennel Dressing

creamy fennel dressing in a mason jar on orange backgroundJoleen Zubek for Reader's Digest

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 very finely minced small shallot, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon ground fennel seed, the zest of 1 navel orange (about 1 teaspoon), 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, ¼ cup freshly squeezed navel orange juice, and 1 cup thick plain Greek yogurt (preferably whole milk, but nonfat and low-fat work too). Season with salt and pepper. Serve as a cold or room-­temperature sauce with cold poached salmon; cold roast pork loin or tenderloin; or roasted carrots, butternut squash, or beets.

Kate Lowenstein is a health editor currently at Vice; Daniel Gritzer is the culinary director of the cooking site Serious Eats.

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