Orange Blossom Special

The key scene in Marcel Proust’s À la recherce du temps perdu, or Remembrance of Things Past, is the madeleine episode, where the smell and taste of a cookie transports the narrator back to his childhood. (You can see a cartoon version of this famous French scene in the Pixar film Ratatouille). This happens to me every spring when the orange trees bloom.

When we first moved to Central Florida, we moved into what was left of an orange grove. The houses on our street had been carved out of a larger grove, as had all the houses in the subdivisions on either side of us. Every house had a tree or two (ours were a Parson Brown and a Valencia), but the best thing about our unfenced yard was that it nudged up against an undeveloped lot. That tiny remnant of grove became a playground. One tree, fitted with seats by neighborhood children long gone off to college, filled with friends as we chatted away humid summer afternoons. Windfall oranges became the ammunition in grove wars that would break out, boys vs. girls. The boys nearly always won, since one of them would invariably pick up a half-rotted specimen that exploded in a smear on some unsuspecting opponent, driving us all out of the trees and into the nearest swimming pool.

Orange trees are unique because they are the only fruit trees which bear and blossom at the same time. The winter citrus harvest coincides with the arrival of the orange blossoms, and there is no scent quite like it on earth. We’d walk home from school in a haze of fragrance, the smell would hang so heavy in the humid air. In mid-spring, you could catch a whiff of hot orange once the packing plants in Apopka and Zellwood began their work for Minute Maid.

These days, the groves have given way to office parks and subdivisions. You can no longer smell the heavy warmth wafting from the juice-processing plants in north Orange County, for they have all closed down. U.S. Highway 441, the Orange Blossom Trail, reminds us of all we’ve lost now that its shoulders are crowded with strip malls instead of rows on rows of trees. Still, our little backyard groves–the ones that survived the Christmas freeze of 1989, at least–still burst into blossom in the spring, transporting me to a time when my biggest worries were grades on a report card and a perfect day was spent perched in the boughs of a tree.

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