This winter, fate has blown me to Southern California, where I'm renting a house surrounded by citrus trees. There are roses, too, and wild parrots, and palm trees that look as goofy and inauthentic up close as they do on postcards.
It's the fruit, though, that has me enthralled. Mesmerized. Mad with anticipation. For the first time in my life, I can become a citrus locavore, shrinking my carbon footprint to zero while I raise my vitamin C levels to previously unknown heights.
Did you notice the catch? I said anticipation, not consumption. The abundance that surrounds me is all in the future. One day, I will wake up and find myself within arm's reach of hundreds of pounds of ripe fruit, but that day is not now. I feel like a toddler waiting for the magic moment when it's time to rip into all the packages under the tree. I'm impatient. I'm tempted. I'm trying to be good.
For the last two months, I've been making daily surveys of my rented yard, waiting for something to ripen. I've located a ladder and a mysterious wire basket mounted on a long pole, which I believe is a tool for plucking fruit from higher branches. There is an electric juicer in the kitchen cabinet and even some canning jars in the pantry.
What there isn't, yet, is anything edible. On sunnier slopes and warmer neighborhoods, fruit is already dropping to the ground, but here the harvest is still a distant prospect. A few misguided attempts to eat low-hanging samples have convinced me Shakespeare was right: ripeness is all. Meanwhile, I study the spreading tinges of orange or yellow that assure me the green globes dangling overhead are not just different varieties of limes.
But what are they? Three tall trees near the driveway seem to be bearing some sort of juice oranges, sweet and thin-skinned and packed with many more seeds than the varieties that make it to market. A dwarf tree near the mailbox is putting out incongruously large navel oranges. Out by the back fence, a low branch bends under what I think must be a grapefruit. In the front yard, high in the branches of a tall, almost leafless tree, I spot what look like tangerines. Next to it is another tree bearing what may be limes, or maybe late oranges. Small dark green globes peek between the branches of an overgrown holly, until I come closer and notice another tangerine tree crowded below, competing for space and sun. Turning around, I recognize a kumquat bush among the roses. That's the complete inventory, and none of it is ready to eat.
This is a big change from my normal life in Chicago, where citrus fruit fills the grocery bins every month of the year, all of it imported from orchards very far away. Mexico? Morocco? California? I hardly noticed. After the first thousand miles, it doesn't really seem to make much difference.
The markets here are as well-stocked in the citrus department as the markets in Chicago, but I can't bring myself to buy any. When I lived well above the frost belt, winter fruit was one of those allowable compromises, like chocolate and olive oil. Here, surrounded by so many trees getting ready for their big moment, it seems wrong to buy what I can soon gather myself.
And so I wait. Over the next few weeks and months, everything will ripen. There will come a day when I am confronted by pounds and pounds of fruit, every piece of it demanding to be peeled or juiced or preserved. I'll be able to pluck my own breakfast grapefruit and squeeze juice from oranges still warm from the sun. If I get ambitious enough, I might even make my own marmalade.
I'll pick as much as I can, share the bounty with friends, and find a food bank accepting donations. Too much of a good thing is not a real problem.
Neither is waiting. If we want to understand what it means to eat local food, in season, we also have to be conscious of what is not yet ready to eat. Anticipation is its own reward, a good thing to remember in these days when we are urged to devote ourselves to shopping. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have passed, but I'm saving myself for the true holiday season. If I'm good, there'll be an orange in my Christmas stocking, and probably also a tangerine, a grapefruit, and a kumquat or three. And the distant promise of fragrant blossoms, something to look forward to in the new year.