Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Oh, My Darling

I don't eat much fruit. Oranges have all those threads and membranes. Bananas make my mouth itch. And berries...well, some are squishy. Some are hairy. Some have those little fiddly seeds. Raspberries hit the trifecta. No, fruit -- besides a Honeycrisp apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter -- doesn't really have a place in my eating habits.

Except for one. The clementine. Clementine, the lifesaver. Clementine, the nostalgic queen. The clementine, which I discovered in Russia and have loved ever since.

In November of 1992, the group that was studying a semester in Krasnodar, Russia, was spending a week in St. Petersburg and a week in Russia for our mid-term break. I had just been dumped by a fellow student in favor of a Russian girl who made him tea every night. Really, who can compete with that? I promptly got sick and lost a lot of weight. I spent much of my time alternating between being tragic and being sick in my room at the dormitory. I had been to St. Petersburg before, and the burdens on my soul allowed me to plead absence from the sightseeing tours and museum visits.

Studying in Krasnodar was much worse than anyone had expected, including the people who organized the trip. It was the first post-Soviet group to come, and conditions had deteriorated in a year. There were food shortages (I still have my sugar ration tickets) and manditory blackouts. By November, much of us had succombed to a kind of lethargy.

I felt it in St. Petersburg. I was finished with Russia. My feelings were hurt, I was sick and weak, and I was ready to go.

One afternoon, the student in question came by with a bag of food. Western food -- a two-liter bottle of 7Up, a bag of potato chips, a bar of chocolate, and clementines. "I don't eat fruit," I said, annoyed.

"You have to," he said, equally annoyed. "Cut the shit. You're sick; you're making yourself sick. Eat them."

Clementines have thin, easy-to-peel rinds. They have almost no membranes. Most are seedless. They are sweeter than oranges. I was instantly hooked.

Clementines are called "mandariny" in Russian, and for years I thought mandarin oranges were clementines. They are not. Don't even go to the store and buy a can of mandarin oranges, thinking they are clementines! You have been warned.

The smell of cigarette smoke and diesel exhaust on a cold day is enough to put me back on a street in Russia. The smell of clementines on my fingers does the same. I ate them every day in the winter when I lived there. Three clementines, some bread and cheese and a cigarette meant lunch.

After plowing through the bag of Western food, the fellow student and I stopped being angry at each other. We weren't friends again (and wouldn't be for years), but the hostility, at least, had ended. I spent the rest of my time in St. Petersburg on my own, but exploring the city, instead of malingering in my room.

I bought my first box of clementines of the season today. I never ate clementines growing up, but the nostalgia I feel when I eat them every winter is powerful, like a memory from childhood.

7 comments:

  1. I love Clementines.

    My daughter brought home a bunch yesterday. Apparently someone has a tree at the bus stop and the lady lets her take any that have fallen off the tree.

    YUMMY

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  2. Wait, clementines grow on a TREE?

    I thought they grew in wooden boxes covered with orange mesh!

    [boggles]

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  3. Anonymous7:50 AM

    Always the voice of dissent, i'm afraid clems make me throw up. Dunno why, but i can't stand to smell them.
    Nella

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  4. For me, the smell of diesel, smoking, and the first snow takes me back to St. Petersburg. You know, I've only been to Russia in the winter (last time Jan. 2001).

    Clementines are the best fruit ever, and I'm off to get some today!

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  5. Happy Happy Joy Joy.. I got TWO boxes of Clementines last night. Winn-Dixie had them buy one box get one free.. I just couldn't pass it up and I thought of you as I ate my first one today!

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  6. I bought my first box this week, too; I found them when we lived in VA. I keep them heaped in a clear glass bowl on the kitchen counter, and I rely heavily on their good cheer. And like you, I eat 3 a day.

    ...continuing the meme, in the winter of 1999 lp and Les Grandparents and my mother and I all rode the subway from Nobu in Tribeca down to WTC, singing 'Oh My Darling Clementine' because lp wanted to know if there were more verses and my grandparents are from Arkansas, so they knew them. And then we went to the Bar at the Top of the World and drank champagne. I'm glad I enjoyed it as much as I did, as much as it was worth.

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  7. Krup, I have a clementine tree in my garden. The kids get 3 in their packed lunch everyday until there are no more. If I could figure out how to mail them internationaly I would send you some but I think it is illeagal to send fruit into the USA.
    Ein Shem

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