My mother was born on a farm in a tiny town called Menlo, Iowa. There she raised corn, soy beans, hogs and steers—one of whom won a prestigious 4H award that got her on the Johnny Carson radio show in Nebraska.
What she produced found its way onto many a holiday table. But for her as a little girl, the most exciting taste of all was the explosion of California sunshine from the single clementine she and her three sisters found in their stockings each year.
Clementines were hard to come by in the Midwest mid-winter. Things weren’t as they are now with produce from all seasons on display in the market at all times. They were an expensive indulgence for her hard-working, penny-conscious parents and an exotic taste of the world outside of Menlo.
Although there are stories of similar fruits found in China even earlier, legend has it that clementines are a hybrid of the Willow Leaf Mandarin and Sweet Orange that arose spontaneously in the late nineteenth century in Algeria in the garden of Clemente Rodier’s orphanage. Typically seedless and easy to peel, they harvest later than normal oranges—November through January—which is what makes them such perfect Christmas fare. And records show clementines were first grown in California in 1914.
Like the clementines, my parents made their way to the Golden State, which was a kaleidoscope of year-round produce, and where barefoot beach living replaced the pronounced seasons my mother had known back home. Learning to make her own yogurt, granola, olallieberry jam and zucchini bread took the place of her childhood chores of “walking beans” and feeding the hogs.
But one Midwestern tradition stood strong. Although no longer the scarce novelty of her snow-covered Christmas memories, my mother included a shiny, tiny orange globe buried in the toe of our stockings every year without fail. A single clementine with a world of significance.
I remember my mother peeling the skin off for me and the burst of citrus cutting through the heavy aroma of gravy and stuffing. The sapor of her history and geography dancing in sections handed down and handed over, enveloping all five senses in a distinct moment.
Now my mother’s hands shake with Parkinson’s, so it is I who peel for her. A beautiful bowl she bought when she lived in Strasberg is filled with brand-name clementines, called Cuties, on our festive table. It’s an homage to her world travels and a nod to the single luxury in her Iowan stocking. To my mom, and now to me, her words ring true: “It’s just not a holiday without them.”