Valentine’s Day aside, February truly is an example of a love–hate relationship, a mixture of longing and dread. That it is the shortest month is both a blessing and a curse. It reflects so directly the paradoxical nature of the human condition as its daylight hours grow longer while, counterintuitively, its temperatures decline. February is a flirtatious tease, filling us with hope while reminding us, cruelly, that we are not in charge. Of course, February behaves differently depending on where we reside. Here, in the Middle Atlantic states, our winters register low on the harsh meter, and we are grateful for that, but February reminds us not to be too gloat-y or greedy, since anything can happen. Any time.
Despite my instincts of mistrust for February, by December I can’t help eagerly awaiting its arrival. The reason is, I yearn for something that only February can provide, a desire that it alone can quench. What it brings starts its yearly emergence mid-to-late January and disappears mid-March, like an extended appearance of our annual groundhog. However, it is not a roly-poly, fur-covered mammal that makes my heart go pitter-pat, exceedingly cute as it is; it is rather, a nearly round, shiny-skinned fruit: the Temple orange. It is my love apple.
I was introduced to Temples by my mother and, sadly, I don’t know how she gained her knowledge of them. They just became an annual event in our home, similar to what now, for others, Clementines have become for the winter holidays. But it wasn’t so ubiquitous as that, since, even though they were available for her purchase, they were not something I ever saw in anyone else’s household. She must have had the same love for them that I developed – maybe it is something in our DNA, or some pheromone we sensed in common. But we shared, too, the midwinter jones that only this citrus could satisfy. Thanks, Mom.
There is a learned kind of placeness in having a food as an annual event, of it being representative of the same month every year. And, too, having it create a cyclical yearning and anticipation makes for a visceral desire for the fruit. Its placeness every February becomes the only antidote. This seasonal nature of things like foodstuffs, let alone their placeness, is practically unheard of in the year-round availability of almost every other comestible. Of course, this makes the Temple all the more special.
A descendant of the original growers of the Temple orange, Ethel G. Hakes wrote a history of the fruit entitled, “The Romance of the Orange,” published in The Florida Grower around 1964. In her personal and factual account of her husband’s grandparents’ discovery of a single tree in their Winter Park, Florida, citrus grove, she relates the surprise origins of the parent tree that became the propagator for all the Temple oranges that followed – and how it was named: for William Chase Temple, who helped build the steel industry in Pittsburgh, Pa., and then the citrus industry, forming the Florida Citrus Exchange, in 1909. From her memoir: “Ranking among the handsomest of Florida’s fresh fruits is its luscious-tasting, easy-peeling Temple orange. Believed to have come from Jamaica before 1894, it was introduced to the public in 1917.” It generated much interest as a new “wonder” orange and its name was patented.
Declared “undoubtedly an accidental hybrid,” by Dr. David Fairchild, head of the Bureau of Plant Introductions, for the federal government, the Temple was one of those happy freaks of nature: a cross between a tangerine and an orange. The tree also had its druthers, preferring certain growing conditions, like rich hammock soil. “And today,” Hakes wrote, “the fruit market of the world is enriched by truly a miracle orange – the handsome, easy-peeling, luscious-tasting Temple.”
Hear, hear! The Temple hints at its power to entice simply by one’s sniffing the slightly cratered and bumpy skin. It’s pungent aroma permeates the air when you just break its thick but easily-penetrated outer rind. It has a deeper orange color than most other citrus, except maybe the tangerine. The citrus oil is as heady as pine oil can be. Tearing through the skin, the orange itself has a slight bitter smell; the more of the fruit you reveal, the more pronounced is the subtle scent of the white inner-peel. Disengage a segment and place it whole in your mouth, because if you bite into it, its juices will land on your chin and clothes, not in your mouth. Beware of lots of seeds, but don’t let that minor inconvenience spoil the taste. And what of the taste? Spurts of tangerine and orange, and hints of something indefinable, sweet and sour, refreshing and tart, complexity, perhaps umami.
Remember that old slogan out of Florida’s citrus campaign, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”? I would do that one better: A February without Temples is a devastating winter. So, according to the PLU codes from the International Federation for Produce Coding (IFPC), the number to look for is 4387 (large) or 4386 (small) Temples – sandwiched chronologically between Navels and Valencias. Temple oranges were known as the king of citrus in the 1950s-‘60s, as well as a sign of spring in Florida. They are loved by more than myself. In the famous Philadelphia Reading Terminal Market, a former vendor, Ro & Sons Produce, would hang a banner every year in March. It said, simply, “Goodbye Temples, see you next year!”