05 May Disney Oranges

I love oranges. Sometimes I’ll stand over the kitchen sink and eat several (seven is my record) until my lips are burning and I’m reeling from a citrus high. Orange season runs from November through April. You can find softball-sized navels on sale at the grocer’s now because, as the season is ending, growers are trying to empty their warehouses. Yesterday, as I was picking up two eight-pound bags of navels on sale at my neighborhood Safeway, I was surprised by the sight of bagged oranges marketed by Disney. The same Disney that gave us Pinocchio and Little Mermaid is now giving us fruit? I was confounded. Mind you, I’ve bought oranges in abundance for years and have never seen Disney-branded fruit. Their bag of oranges is blazoned with big bright illustrations of Little Nemo cartoon characters.

I’d have thought the media would have made a fuss about this. In these days of ultra-corporatization, I guess Disney fruit doesn’t make much of a story. But it gives me pause, mainly because I’m suspicious of huge corporations taking over any and everything. My father grew up in California’s San Joaquin valley, where most of America’s produce comes from. He lived amid the orange groves in the days before mega-farming. For a time, I lived there too. I loved the sweet pungent stink of rotting oranges from the groves. Come spring, pink-white orange blossoms rain from the trees like blizzard snow. On cold winter nights, the wind machines—airplane propellers mounted on tall poles– chatter over the groves, churning the air to keep the freeze off the fruit. In my father’s days, farmhands would light smudge pots in the fields, filling the groves with smoke to fight the freeze.

My grandmother worked in the packing houses until she was 72, grading oranges on the line eight hours a day, five days a week. She’d wear a sweater against the warehouse chill, and white cotton gloves to save her fingers. She sorted oranges according to size, sending the too-small or mushy ones either to be juiced or pulped (for animal feed or fertilizer). She often had a box of the best navel oranges on her porch. After graduating from college, I lived with her for a while and ate oranges every day. Now, nearly every time I pick one up, it reminds me of her and her hard-scrabble life.

The orange we’re familiar with was originally called the “sweet orange” or “China orange.” Yes, it originated in China or India, though nobody can say for certain where exactly. Early explorers –Persians and Arabs—brought it west. By the 1500s, Italians and Spaniards were cultivating it. The Spanish got rich trading oranges with their Northern neighbors in the 1600-1700s. The Spanish brought the China orange to California, maybe as early as the 1600s. California now produces the best orange in the world. If you don’t believe this, set a California navel next to, say, a Florida navel and take a look. Then take a taste. No contest. The irony of California’s supremacy is that it now ships about 20 million boxes of oranges to Asia annually. That includes China.

For the longest time, the orange was a luxury item, a rare and costly fruit imported from far-eastern lands. Here in the U.S., the orange remained a costly item until transcontinental railroads and well-maintained highways made it more accessible and more affordable—circa the 1920s. Before it became a common grocery store item, it would show up as a Christmas treat, because that’s when the orange was most abundant and easily obtained. Whenever nineteenth century novels describe Christmas, they inevitably mention the orange in a stocking or as dessert.

Apparently, the Disney corporation has been branding oranges and other produce with cartoon characters since 2006. Said a spokesperson, “This new and innovative joint venture with Disney and our supplier is a great way to harness pester power and use it to get kids eating more healthily.” It appears that Disney doesn’t own any orange farms, rather the company partner with certain growers to market their brand. I found a website discussion that talked of Disney’s recent venture. Said one consumer: “As much as I don’t the like Disney corp., whatever gets kids to eat fruits and veggies is a plus in my book. better than teaming up for happy meals.” Said another, “People need to realize they just need to go down to the local market or farmers market to get healthy food. If they live by the Disney name for their choice of healthy food, they are idiots!”

One participant announced that, in Spain, Disney markets hamburger shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. Another recalled drinking Donald Duck orange juice as a kid. I remember it too. Also noodles with Popeye the Sailor on the box. Kellogg’s corn flakes always had a sports star on the box. So what am I complaining about? Celebrity endorsements have been around for over a hundred years. They’re integral to our culture, for better or worse. Still, I’m attracted to the less flashy unknown brands—and modest packaging that reminds me of the seemingly simpler times. Most oranges still come that way, in part because oranges don’t need flash. They are already flashy, God bless them.