There’s something to the magic alchemy of golden sun and cool air of California that makes its oranges all the plumper and shinier.
The sweet fruit has proved to be not only the crucial draw of the initial masses of Easterners, Midwesterners and Southerners who first filled it up right after the Civil War, but also the state’s and even the nation’s economy. And no pie captures the very taste of the Golden State better than the Orange Meringue Pie.
What makes it all the more appealing is that both Northern Californians and Southern Californians have a stake in its history.
The orange was initially brought to the area of what is now San Diego, California, by Spanish missionaries in 1769, from what is now Mexico, but they were not grown for community harvesting.
The mother of all orange trees in California is, in fact, called The Mother Orange Tree, now located in the Northern California town of Oroville, where it is still growing with a simple protective fence around it at the California State Park Headquarters.
Only two years old at the time it was delivered by ship from Mexico in 1856 to Sacramento’s Judge Joseph Lewis, it eventually rose to more than 60 feet and produced some 600 pounds of oranges a year, on average.
Gold miners often swiped one on their way to pan for the day, and carried the seeds and planted them on their travels throughout the Golden State. The fact that it grew that far north encouraged those Californians to also start planting orange groves up there. Nearly rendered unfruitful during a severe 1998 frost, transplanted twice, cloned three times, it keeps on giving.
The State of California and the Orange really came together, however, on a ranch in Riverside, in southern California, when two navel orange trees arrived for Eliza Tibbets in 1873. The fifty-year old Liz was quite a woman. Born in Ohio into a family of Spiritualists, she and her third husband were also rabid abolitionists who had lived in New York State, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. where she joined with her friend Frederick Douglass in fighting for women’s right to vote. She was also a medium.
With the desire to live fully up to her true spirit that still moves many to re-locate to California, Liz Tibbets went west to join a colony of Spiritualists. Also possessing an expertise in farming and agriculture, she settled on Riverside in 1873 and convinced her Washington friend, the leading Department of Agriculture botanist William Saunders, to send her two orange trees for experimental cultivation in California. “That lady called here and was anxious to get some of these plants for her place, and I sent two of them by mail,” he wrote a colleague. He sent them. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mrs. Tibbets received two seedless tree samples from the Bahia region of Brazil’s Atlantic coast, seedless navel oranges. They never did well in Florida, but in the California soil and sun, the trees flourished madly, producing a sweet fruit in 1875-1876; as a sterile variety, with no seeds, propagating more trees involved grafting a bud from an existing tree onto separate rootstock. The color, shape, texture and thick protective skin – perfect for packing and shipping – became a national hit in a few short years.
More of her trees were grafted and spread into vast rows and rows and rows of navel orange groves and created the first major industry in California, bringing in masses of migrants who settled there, a housing boom, investment, and agricultural, transportation and innovations. By 1900, it was California’s leading industry. In 1886 alone new citrus towns rose in Rialto, Fontana, Bloomington, Redlands, Terracina, Loma Linda, Corona, Etiwanda, Redlands, and Ontario; all from Liz’s two trees; in fact, the navel orange we eat today is literally the same as the first ones, all of them being clones from the grafting of the original orange trees.
In 1887, some one million boxes of oranges were imported. By 1944, it was 65.5 million. The Santa Fe Railroad opened a rail station in Riverside in 1886 to allow direct shipment to the east and within seven years, Riverside was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.
Local growers organized a cooperative marketing association which eventually became Sunkist Growers, Incorporated. A dozen years later, the University of California created a Citrus Experiment Station there.
Nothing forged the image of California as a perfect land, where the air was literally scented with lush flowers and perpetually blossoming trees, where manual labor in the cool outdoor sunshine was a pleasure and opportunity was around every corner – than the orange. And it was idealized on the hundreds of artistic crate labels shipped across the country.
Today, although California still produces nearly a quarter of the entire U.S. orange consumption, it is meager by relative comparison to a century ago.
Americans today consume an average of less than 12 pounds a year per person, compared to 15 pounds a year in the 1970s. Rising water prices and the ever-increasing demand for land to build housing have also radically reduced the once ubiquitous groves of Southern California.
Today, the once-familiar roadside stands visible from early highways in California, where a car could pull aside and get some fresh oranges, orange juice or orange meringue pie are gone. The only one left is a preserved model in a museum park in Riverside.
And, two months ago, it was discovered with great alarm that all of California’s citrus industry is threatened by a blight which may put the final end to the California Navel Orange.
Outside of eating an orange or drinking some juice, however, nothing retains its fragrant essence better than a slice of it in a meringue pie. With the natural sweetness of orange juice, its a pie that takes far less sugar than its brother pie, the more famous lemon meringue pie.
What is crucial to its specific taste is the use of orange zest, the tiny scrapings of its peel. While some purists insist on a regular crust, an alternative using the graham-cracker crust gives it a better crunch – at least to this Californian’s palate. Unlike most pies, the filling is actually cooked in a small pot over the stove. the one caution is to be certain that when the egg yolk is mixed in that it is first well-beaten and then well-blended, to avoid curdling.