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A classic of reportage, Oranges was first conceived as a short magazine article about oranges and orange juice, but the author kept encountering so much irresistible information that he eventually found that he had in fact written a book. It contains sketches of orange growers, orange botanists, orange pickers, orange packers, early settlers on Florida's Indian River, the first orange barons, modern concentrate makers, and a fascinating profile of Ben Hill Griffin of Frostproof, Florida who may be the last of the individual orange barons. McPhee's astonishing book has an almost narrative progression, is immensely readable, and is frequently amusing. Louis XIV hung tapestries of oranges in the halls of Versailles, because oranges and orange trees were the symbols of his nature and his reign. This book, in a sense, is a tapestry of oranges, too—with elements in it that range from the great orangeries of European monarchs to a custom of people in the modern Caribbean who split oranges and clean floors with them, one half in each hand.

160 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1967

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About the author

John McPhee

140 books1,503 followers
Princeton University and Cambridge University educated John Angus McPhee. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association since 1965 with the New Yorker as a staff writer. In the same year, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1968), Levels of the Game (1968), The Crofter and the Laird (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards. Selections from these books make up The John McPhee Reader (1976).

Since 1977, the year in which McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the bestselling Coming into the Country appeared in print, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published Giving Good Weight (collection, 1979), Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), La Place de la Concorde Suisse (1984), Table of Contents (collection, 1985), Rising from the Plains (1986), Heirs of General Practice (in a paperback edition, 1986), The Control of Nature (1989), Looking for a Ship (1990), Assembling California (1993), The Ransom of Russian Art (1994), The Second John McPhee Reader (1996), Irons in the Fire (collection, 1997), Annals of the Former World (1998). Annals of the Former World, McPhee’s tetralogy on geology, was published in a single volume in 1998 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The Founding Fish was published in 2002.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 330 reviews
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,516 followers
February 10, 2018
Here's what I learned about oranges, or citrus generally:

-- Citrus does not come true from seed. What this means is: If you plant an orange seed, a grapefruit might come up. If you plant a seed of that grapefruit, you might get a bitter lemon. To get oranges, specifically, you have to graft the orange to the rootstock of some other citrus tree. Sweet Florida oranges are grown primarily from bitter orange and sour lemon root.

-- Columbus himself brought the first oranges to the New World.

-- An orange grown in Florida usually has a thin and tightly fitting skin, and it is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a ten-ton truck and not even wet the pavement.

-- A citrus fruit is, botanically, a berry.

-- When you buy a lime to add to your gin and tonic it is generally seedless, which is certainly accommodating for the serious drinker. But it's a problem for pomologists confronted with a virus to an orchard. The most common way to create a virus-free strain of a citrus fruit is to plant a seed, since a parent's virus is not transmitted to its seedlings. So, what to do with the seemingly seedless lime? Two researchers cut up eighteen hundred and eighty-five Persian Limes and found no seeds at all. They next went to a lime concentrate plant and filled up two dump trucks with pulp from the tens of thousands of Persian Limes that had been turned into limeade. Picking through it all by hand, they found two hundred and fifty seeds, and planted them. Up from those lime seeds came sweet oranges trees, bitter orange trees, grapefruit trees, lemon trees, tangerines, limequats, citrons--and two seedlings which proved to be Persian Limes.

-- The modern fruit we recognize as an orange almost surely developed in China.

-- The word "orange" evolved from the Sanskrit. It was orange first in France.

-- In fifteenth-century Breslau, there was an annual orange shoot . . . during which marksmen spent happy hours shooting oranges off one another's heads. In Switzerland, the legend of William Tell was recorded in the same century, and since there seems never to have been a William Tell, it is possible that the Swiss borrowed the idea from the Breslovians, and that the fruit on the head of Tell's trusting son might well have been an orange.

-- Harriet Beecher Stowe bought an orange orchard in Florida in 1868. A Southern newspaper expressed satisfaction "that Mrs. Stowe has done this little to repair the world of the evil for which she is responsible in the production of Uncle Tom's Cabin."

-- Many societies believed that the worst thing to happen to an orange tree was the touch of a woman. This superstition was especially persistent in Germany.

-- Oranges appear frequently in the paintings of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance.* Not having seen the Holy Land, they glibly set their Annunciations and Resurrections in Italian villas and on Italian hills. Crusaders, among others, had long since reported that orange trees flourished in Palestine, so, as a kind of hallmark of authenticity, the painters slipped orange trees into masterpiece after masterpiece, remaining ignorant to their deaths that in the time of Christ there were no orange trees in or near the Holy Land.

This book was written in 1966 and does seem a little dated, especially with a large focus on orange concentrate. I don't even know anyone who buys concentrate anymore unless they order it in a chain restaurant for breakfast and it comes gurgling out of one of those machines. I googled my suspicion and, surprisingly, did not get an answer to my specific question. What I got instead was bombarded with links telling me that orange juice is no good for me, with titles like "Why Orange Juice is Slowly Killing You". So, being health-conscious as I am, I will have my vodka straight.

And now you know what I know about oranges.

----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----

*After a quick look, I didn't find any oranges in the fruit bowls but I did find many, many orange trees, for instance, in Madonna of the Orange Tree:

And, nothing conceals like orange leaves:

16 reviews1 follower
June 27, 2009
You get done with this book and say "I just read an entire book about oranges?!"
Profile Image for Ruth.
Author 11 books469 followers
January 3, 2009
I came to this book with two misapprehensions. First, I thought it was a new book. Second, I thought it would be about California.

I own a whole string of McPhee books, but lately my enthusiasm for his writing has been in need of a transfusion. A new book seemed the thing to do it. This turned out to be one of his first books. How come I never heard of it until now?

I have lived for the major portion of my life in the middle of the orange groves. (McPhee says Californians speak of orange “orchards.” If so, I’ve been living in a bubble for 70+ years.)

The subject of orange trees takes me back to the smell of orange blossoms on moonlight horseback rides in the San Fernando Valley; to standing in black adobe mud, tending the irrigation ditches in the acre of so of orange grove my family owned; to the smell of the peel when you dig your fingernails into it on a hot summer day; to fresh-squeezed orange juice in a round glass pitcher on the top shelf of the refrigerator; to row after row of glossy green globular trees stretching across the valley in geometric rows; to the warnings to young girls to “stay out of the orange groves” if you didn’t want trouble; to roadside stands today, selling fresh, tart-sweet Navels for $3 a bag; to the sound of Rainbirds chk-chk-chking all night long.

I have to admit that the things I like about McPhee are still there. His ability to dig into something and come up with all kinds of interesting facts you didn’t even know you didn’t know. His personalization of these facts through his interaction with others. His clean, clear prose.

But I was unable to get over my disappointment that California is mentioned only in passing. The book should have been called Florida Oranges.

Oh, and remind me never to drink orange “juice” made from concentrate again. I always knew it tasted funny. Now I know why.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,181 followers
March 2, 2021
One of the small joys of living in Spain is the widespread availability of fresh orange juice. Many bars and cafés are equipped with orange juicing machines; and supermarkets even have them in the fruit section, so that you can squeeze yourself a bottle to drink at home. For my part, this fresh orange juice is incomparably better than juice that has been concentrated, pasteurized, or deaerated, usually sold in American grocery stores. Seeing the number of oranges needed to fill up a single bottle does make you feel rather wasteful, though.

This book is exactly what its title promises: it is all about oranges. Apparently McPhee pitched oranges as the topic of a single New Yorker article, and got so wrapped up in the topic that he decided to write a whole book about it. It is a well-written book. But the most fascinating information could probably have been squeezed into an article after all. Most surprising, for me, was learning that oranges are cultivated via grafts, and not from seeds, as citrus seeds are too unpredictable. (Apparently grapefruit seeds can sprout orange trees, and vice versa.) The history of orange cultivation and consumption was also appreciated. But I could have done without much of McPhee’s own narration of visiting orange country.

It is also worth noting that much of the information in this book (published in 1967) is long outdated. For example, Brazil, China, India, and Mexico have all since surpassed the United States in orange production (we were #1 at the time). And commercial orange juices (like Tropicana) now resemble the fresh stuff more than the concentrate drunk back then. So even as a course for orange fun facts, the book is limited. However, McPhee did inspire in me a ravenous desire to consume oranges in all of their many varieties. I found myself craving citrus every time I read even a page. So in that light, I can deem Oranges a success.
Profile Image for Jim.
183 reviews34 followers
January 8, 2022
This was delightful.

In 1967, John McPhee set out to write a magazine article about oranges. He went to Florida and learned so much interesting stuff that it turned into an entire book.

He interviewed everybody from the orange pickers to the orange barons, he read every book, he went to every orange-related place in the state. All of that info in the hands of a writer like McPhee turns into a great way to spend a day of reading.

McPhee writes this at a transformational time in the orange industry - the rise of concentrate. The story of how concentrate came about and how thoroughly it took over the industry was really interesting.

Since the book is going on sixty years old, one of the best parts was googling to see if some of the predictions McPhee made came true. Example - In 1967 all oranges were still picked the way they had been for centuries - by hand, by someone who had climbed a ladder. But the race was on to build a machine that would do the picking in a faster time, and McPhee described several kinds that were coming to market. Alas, a Google search shows that even today, 96 percent of all Florida oranges are still harvested by hand. None of the machines ever worked.

Great book.
Profile Image for Nick Grammos.
200 reviews78 followers
January 13, 2021
There's nothing like a fresh orange off the tree. You tear off the skin, it's full of juice, aroma, texture, freshness. Nothing feels wrong about a fresh orange. In the future it might become a tourist industry, one of those experienced-based travel adventures.

I read this book years ago as I embarked on planting several varieties in my father's garden. The book was a chance discovery in an opportunity shop. The other chance encounter was finding a small ambitious local nursery owner who wanted to promote fruit like rare or unusual varieties of oranges grafted by an equally enthusiastic and determined propagator. The oranges are still there, my father is not, neither is the nursery or the propagator. Though I sometimes bump into the nursery owner who now a builder. I update him on the size of each year's crop. The five trees keep us in oranges for about four months of the year, eating vast amounts.

The other chance discovery came when I opportunistically bought a box of oranges from a roadside apple seller in central Victoria. I think I missed oranges. So I gave them a try. This was really the spark for the rest of the story. Once we could get a Riverina orange from Mildura or Swan Hill way and it would be sweet and fresh and aromatic. It was the norm. Now (for at least 20 years) they've been musty, old and tasteless, serving the industry that stores them. They often come from the USA too. But they lacked everything except colour. But this box from the side of the highway was magical, everything you'd ever want in an orange. And I tried to track down someone who would send me boxes every season. I couldn't find anyone. Not even the roadside seller could. I missed the taste.

These encounters made me realise that the business of selling oranges is really the business of storing them. Which isn't the same as eating them. So I made it my business to grow them instead. I was furious and couldn't wait to plant them and eat them. I turned my fury into productivity.

These stories intersect only slightly with this book. McPhee is a good writer and journalist. He really gets into the heads of "orange men". He knew the areas where they grew as a child and I could see he missed roadside orange sellers, like I missed the oranges of childhood. Through his writing and observations, you can see the wheels of commerce turning so that in the end, we are stuck with self-serving producers, not really oranges. The product - oranges - has become irrelevant. You could plug any word into the text instead of oranges, say apples, and find a similar story about the degradation of natural products for alternative commercial ends. It all seems pointless. It's tragic, too, unless you have a garden in a zone where they can ripen properly. Melbourne can just manage it. They could be sweeter, and in hot years, they are perfect. But the weather here is variable.

Oh, one last personal point. My father grew up in Greece, on a small cash crop farm. They grew oranges there, including a variety he forgot the name of that came to market early. And they grew the now better known Jaffa variety which we planted in his back yard, thanks to the enthusiastic propagator and nursery owner who wanted to bring it back. It still gives delicious (sometimes very sweet) fruit every year. But that could also be global warming.
Profile Image for Annie.
926 reviews313 followers
August 4, 2018
He turned around with a look of recognition and said to me, “You come from apple country.” In one sentence, he had defined the dimensions of his own world, the utterly parochial nature of it, its disciplined singleness.

A brief but mildly interesting story of oranges. Their cultivation, their history, and their uses all get examined here.


This book was written in the 1960s, and it’s interesting to compare then to now. For instance, McPhee notes that for most people, real oranges are “a thing of the past” for the most part. Eating a fresh orange is “old-fashioned.” Most people who consume oranges do so through frozen cans of orange juice concentrate. See, today, I think in a lot of ways those cans of frozen concentrate are themselves old-fashioned, a relic of the 60s-90s. Three times the author is given concentrate labeled “fresh orange juice” in stands in Florida. He asks for fresh orange juice in restaurants in Florida, and none have it.

Today I would guess most people who consume oranges do so through those bags of clementines, like the brands Halo or Cuties. Or through non-concentrated orange juice. Lots of restaurants sell fresh orange juice. And I can’t imagine a Florida orange stand selling concentrate these days. There would be rioting.

There are also other anachronisms, like talking about spraying parathion (a deadly nerve agent used in WW2 warfare) on oranges. “The hazard to the consumer is practically nil.” Lol. Parathion has been banned for use on fruits because it’s a carcinogen.

----------FAV ORANGE FACTS-----------

1. Sweetness. The sweetest oranges come from high up, not low to the ground. Fruit on the outside of the tree is sweeter than fruit closer in to the trunk. South-side oranges are the sweetest, then east and west, and north are the least sweet. The blossom half of the orange is always sweeter than the stem end.

2. Colour. Oranges can be green and still be perfectly ripe. The colour of an orange depends not on ripeness but on temperature. It turns orange because the weather gets cooler, as it does in, say, Florida or California in the winter. In Thailand, by contrast, it never really gets even somewhat cool, and the oranges are green. The ideal nighttime temperature for an orange grove is 40 degrees. That’s why the best oranges in the world are grown on Bermuda, where it typically reaches right around there at night. Hence Andrew Marvell’s poem Bermudas, describing the oranges on that island hanging “like golden lamps in a green night.”

3. Roots. The roots and lower trunk of a citrus tree are usually one fruit, and the upper part, branches, and fruit another entirely (I did know this, as my dad used to grow fruit whose stems he would splice together). For instance, in Florida most orange trees have lemon trunks/roots, and in California most lemon trees have orange roots!

4. Etymology. The word orange comes from the Sanskrit word naranga (the prefix of which meant fragrance), which developed into Neo-Latin “arangium” which became naranja (Spanish), arancia (Italian), and orange (French/English).

5. Uses. Until the 1500s, oranges were grown for ornamental reasons (their “golden orbs” were considered beautiful), fragrance, or as a spice. They weren’t commonly eaten.

Also, oil from orange peels is used to flavor concentrated orange juice to return the flavor of fresh oranges to it. Also, Coca-Cola contains oranges in the form of peel oil.
Profile Image for Ryan.
1,042 reviews33 followers
March 15, 2022
A good writer can take just about anything as his subject, no matter how ordinary, and leave you wondering if you’ve ever seen one before. McPhee took the simple household orange as his subject, intending to produce a one-off article. The result was this slim book - a classic of non-fiction and a marvel of reportage. Among the New Journalists, McPhee’s unflashy style, modesty and absolute self-effacement still give his work rare distinction.

Also recommend The Heirs of General Practice, La Place De La Concorde Suisse and Looking for A Ship.
Profile Image for Roberto.
Author 2 books97 followers
July 20, 2016
You may not know this about me but I have a fruit phobia. Yep. So this was an unusual (and big-boy brave) choice of book for me. I've never eaten an orange, or even held one. But reading about them didn't gross me out too much (admittedly citrus is pretty far down my hierarchy of fruit grossness), and this lovely book from 1966 was actually really interesting, had a casual charm and made excellent bedtime summer reading.
Profile Image for Iona Sharma.
Author 9 books111 followers
March 24, 2021
This book is hard to describe - it's what it sounds like, a long piece of journalism about the orange industry in Florida in the 1960s. It's interesting in itself and also as a historical artefact (he talks, for instance, about the "National Aeronautical Administration" who own a lot of land in Florida, because it's 1967 and the general public don't call it "NASA" yet). It's also luminously written, in a way you wouldn't expect for a book with this subject matter. I liked it a lot.
Profile Image for Vishal Katariya.
168 reviews16 followers
April 30, 2019
This reminded me a lot of Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire. It is quintessential McPhee -- lots of details that go along with his motto of giving structure the highest importance when constructing a narrative. I found some parts of the book boring and skipped them. But apart from those, it was mesmerizing. Someone else described in a review how boring and repetitive tasks have a capacity to completely hold your attention as you are doing them, and reading this book indeed does feel that way. On to more McPhee!
Profile Image for Myles.
553 reviews29 followers
August 6, 2016
(3.9/5.0) If you’ve ever devoted more than a few hours to your local public access woodworking program, getting acquainted with the different block planes and varieties of stains and oils, you’ll know how the bracingly dull can still sometimes draw your admiration, even your surprise. In that he’s a pensive, soft spoken bearded man with the patience to resolve challenging and thankless issues of craft, John McPhee is akin to master carpenter Norm Abram. Here, as he does with the rest of his writing, McPhee uses a simple subject to launch into a deep, almost meditative focus before swirling off to more rewarding digressions. Yes, we learn all about citriculture in 1967 (“picking negroes” and carcinogenic chemicals abound). But, in addition to its smooth, ear-pleasing prose, what makes Oranges a model for social history and creative reporting is its forays into storytelling with these long, playful concatenations of historical events triggered by the title fruit’s movement across cultures and time.

From page 2:

The day is started with orange juice in the Colombian Andes, and, to some extent, in Kuwait. Bolivians don’t touch it at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day. The “play lunch,” or morning tea, that Australian children carry with them to school is usually an orange, peeled spirally halfway down, with the peel replaced around the fruit. The child unwinds the peel and holds the orange as if it were an ice-cream cone. People in Nepal almost never peel oranges, preferring to eat them in cut quarters, the way American athletes do. The sour oranges of Afghanistan customarily appear as seasoning agents on Afghan dinner tables. Squeezed over Afghan food, they cut the grease.
208 reviews7 followers
January 21, 2019
In 2017, I got burned by Bananas. Years prior, at B&N, I'd found a book exclusively about the history of the fruit. Such a pointed focus fascinated me. Surely I would discover many interesting things! The text, however, was written like an extended high school essay. There was no flow. There was repetitive info. What data was given was dry and unmoving. So I had reservations about picking up another slim volume, this time about oranges.

What a difference an author makes, though! I've never read McPhee prior, but he is well regarded, that I know. That regard is likely due to how he is able to make such a seemingly simple topic read like a story. Parts are a travelogue of Florida orange country, other parts are history, or biology. He chronicles the impressive feat of concentrate, yet clearly yearns for a time where fresh juice reigned supreme. He profiles the work and the workers. When he talks about the scent of the air around orange processing plants, it's almost enough to desire a trip to Florida, and when he catalogues all the different oranges, the green skinned and the orange skinned, the seedless and seeded, the known and lesser known, sweeter and tarter... well, I've been craving juice all week, let's put it that way.
2,221 reviews32 followers
August 22, 2021

2.5 Stars!

“Ground fruit-the orange that one can reach and pick from the ground-is not as sweet as fruit that grows high on the tree. Outside fruit is sweeter than inside fruit. Oranges grown on the south side of a tree are sweeter than oranges on the east or west sides, and oranges grown on the north side are the least sweet of the lot.”

This is possibly the most interesting thing I learned in this short account, also did you know that for years California was the leading orange state until Florida surpassed them in 1942. So there you go. Originally published away back in the mid-1960s, it’s fair to say this has dated somewhat.

There are moments when McPhee pulls out some really enjoyable historical facts, and some of the people he meets are mildly interesting, but to be fair at no point does this really show any life or conviction about it, too often it feels too half-hearted in voice and disjointed in structure and overall this wasn’t really a great read.
Profile Image for Lillian.
47 reviews
January 3, 2017
John McPhee's Oranges is just what it sounds like: a book about oranges. The pages are filled with everything the average person would ever wish to know about the fruit, but it doesn't read like a textbook; on the contrary, it sweeps you up and doesn't set you back down until the end (which, I admit, was incredibly abrupt).

When I finished Oranges, I had a large dose of the familiar feeling that comes at the end of a really good book. If you're here on Goodreads, you probably know what I'm talking about: that sense of loss, and a sudden regret that you devoured your book at the speed you did. To have a really good book, in my opinion, it needs to flow, and McPhee understood that. Somehow, he made a book about fruit read like a fantasy novel.
Profile Image for Ben Peyton.
142 reviews1 follower
March 30, 2021
It's about oranges, alright. McPhee travels to Florida in the early 1960s and learns about the history of Florida, the role of oranges there, and the science behind much of growing oranges and producing orange juice. It was more interesting than I thought it would be. McPhee is just an excellent writer and the book is at its best when he is sharing his stories about the people he met in Florida. There are a lot of weird facts in this book. I had no idea that most citrus trees can bear multiple different types of fruit. And the orange trees are grown in Florida, and most places it seems, are the combination of two different types of plants. For example, they use rootstock of lemon trees and then bud tie orange variety plants to the rootstock to grow an orange tree. Similar to how grapevines are commonly cultivated. And, according to medieval growers in Italy, it was common knowledge that women were not allowed near orange trees because their presence would kill the trees.
Profile Image for Erik Rostad.
324 reviews117 followers
September 10, 2022
149 pages about oranges. And I was captivated. Remember when Bubba spoke about shrimp in Forrest Gump? That's basically this book in a nutshell, only it's about oranges. This is a master class on researching a topic deeply and widely and then writing about it. I just got back from the grocery store where I bought oranges and orange juice. It's enticing. And it's educational. I loved this book and if left me with a thirst for more McPhee and some oranges.
Profile Image for Kathrin Passig.
Author 49 books394 followers
May 1, 2018
Frauen kommen nur ganz am Rande als leichtgläubige, dumme Supermarktkundinnen vor. Alle Interviewten, alle Erwähnten, alle handelnden Personen sind Männer. Aber so waren sie wohl, die 60er. Die Faktensammlung hätte mir vielleicht in Prä-Internet-Zeiten Freude bereitet, aber jetzt wirkt sie ein bisschen wie Wikipedia-Abschreibeliteratur.
Profile Image for Clare.
247 reviews5 followers
September 8, 2022
Absolutely loved this book. Witty, interesting and I learned a lot about oranges and orange juice.
It’s a classic from Daunt Books Publishing, a good find from my beloved London indie book chain.
342 reviews5 followers
January 4, 2022
I love books where the author goes deep into one topic with lots of interesting details included. John McPhee was looking for a topic his New Yorker editor would approve and they finally agreed on oranges. The article became this book.

I bought this book after reading an article by Wyatt Williams called After Oranges, which was in the Oxford American where the author traces McPhee’s steps in learning about Florida’s citrus industry, the impact it has had on the land, on real estate, on wealth, climate and some of the characters around all of that. McPhee wrote his book in 1967 before Disney World and long before the peak of orange production in the 1990s.

When McPhee traveled Florida for the book’s research he couldn’t find anyone who would serve him a glass of fresh-squeezed juice. Everyone was touting the goodness and the consistency of juice concentrate.

Wyatt Williams’s updates to the story tell us about the insects killing crops, the hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 which destroyed over 1/3 of the Florida oranges and trees. The storms also spread disease.

McPhee’s book ends with a visit to an orange rancher and concentrate factory owner (and banker and and and) named Ben Hill Griffin. Williams meets Ben Hill Griffin III. The younger man had since sold the house that was the empty lot awaiting the building of the house in 1967. The processing and packing facilities had been sold to Procter & Gamble in 1981. They market Citrus Hill products, though not successfully.

What Williams was researching was the possible demise of the industry. McPhee writes of a long-ago time now, he comes to Florida as Americans are “embracing technology in their foods: orange juice concentrate, TV dinners- not too far away from astronaut food. So, the oranges that he is looking for - the ideal of an orange grove - is illusive.

But he finds so much about oranges tot tell us about. The odd ways that they grow, the spread of oranges from China to India, to the Mediterranean and beyond. How all of Europe embraced their fragrance first and only much later as nourishment. Oranges can develop even if the flower is not fertilized - “by virgin development” he writes. He quotes William Grierson an orange scientist: “the sex life of oranges is something fantastic.” It is interesting to read that staffing work in the groves had its difficulties then, as well. “Under the Secretary of Labor’s plan to reduce unemployment by taking unemployed people to places where work exists, bus loads of workers from other states have been sent to Florida during the orange harvests, but nearly all of these people have quit at once.”

We learn about Florida’s geography - the importance of the Ridge as the micro climate attractive to growers,the passion consumers have for Indian River oranges, not knowing that it isn’t a type of orange. We learn how oranges get their colors, how oranges have played a part in the allure of Florida, not sure I would say development. There are many colorful stories of 19th century landowners, including a phony Italian Duke and Duchess. The Duchess wrote poetry in the newspaper about the Indian River area and the couple built an octagonal wooden palace. McPhee says that although it’s not known where the Duke actually hailed from, the wife was Jenny Anheuser, of the brewer family.

Fruit groves and orchards are risky business deals and this is especially true of Florida’s oranges. If it’s not hurricanes, it’s a crop freeze. In the winter of 1894-95 there were two main freezes and they killed thousands of trees. It was 1910 before the crop regained its 1894 levels. In the interim many people had left the state.

Ultimately oranges are business, McPhee notes “...the organization of the Florida citrus business has acquired an Elaborate superstructure, to the eye of the outsider it appears that for every man in blue jeans there are three with briefcases.” He doesn’t comment on what effect that has on industry.

Williams said that he attempted to chase this book to find out how McPhee did it - did we really need to know all this about oranges? The answer is - you may not think it sounds interesting, but it really is.
Profile Image for Joe Lovinger.
46 reviews4 followers
March 25, 2021
It was a book so insane I had to give it a try: it's only about oranges. I'm not a citrus maniac, but I've been known to have a clementine from time to time, sure. In contrast, it seems John McPhee lived, breathed, ate, and practically became an orange to write this book.

A super fair question to ask yourself: does anyone need this book? How can he fill 149 pages writing about nothing but oranges? And why should I care? All fair questions, and not necessarily ones I can answer for you. But to me, the book supports a hypothesis I've been developing in the past year, one that makes life infinitely richer: anything can be interesting, depending on who's telling you about it.

And McPhee is probably the most qualified person on earth to tell you about oranges. Not only did he spend months reading every book about the history, sociology, science, and economics of the citrus trade, but he has pulled out in vivid detail the best, most interesting pieces of it. Additionally, he has one of the best ears for character I've ever read—in this book, he dives headfirst into the Florida citrus world (and yes, it's an entire world), and pulls out the kooks, the diehards, the crazies, and the lifelongs to illustrate just how rich the world of citrus is, even if you have never thought about it.

In the end, even though the whole thing is oranges, it's not really about the oranges. It's an opportunity for one of the best nonfiction writers in history to do his thing on a complex, hidden world. Loved it.
Profile Image for W.B..
Author 4 books110 followers
December 25, 2007
A friend (thank you, Keith!) once gave me this book to read when I was ill and I sat in a tub and marveled at McPhee's gift for nonfiction. He has this knack of being able to make any subject matter totally enthralling. Check out his biography or lists of published works. Then read one of his little encylopedic studies. You'll see what I mean. I'm sure his books are used rather universally to teach students how to write clearly and beautifully on the most mundane matters. If they are not, they should be.
Profile Image for Kazen.
1,321 reviews298 followers
November 13, 2018
John McPhee was tasked with writing a magazine article about oranges. He went down to Florida, did some research, and came back with a 160 page book instead.

In large part this is because oranges, from their history to their cultivation and processing, is so gosh darn interesting. The book fills your brain with trivia and "did you know"s.

"The taste and aroma of oranges differ by type, season, county, state, and country, and even as a result of the position of the individual orange in the framework of the tree on which it grew."

"Carvone, a synthetic spearmint oil which is used to flavor spearmint gum, is made from citrus peel oil."

Originally published in 1967, McPhee caught the industry at a turning point where American consumers started to prefer orange juice concentrate over the fresh stuff. Concentrate is consistent in taste and texture and doesn't go bad, making it a hit in mid-century homes. He talks about the manufacturing process, the technical discoveries that allow concentrate to actually taste good, and how it was starting to change the industry. I think it's especially interesting because we have since turned back to fresh orange juice, and out of all the "how it's made" videos on Youtube I can't find one that shows concentrate being made.

The writing is light and easy and often Bill Bryson-esque, though without his self-deprecating humor. There are still funny bits, though. When a farmer picks McPhee up by helicopter to show him the groves:

The helicopter was yawing and swaying in a gusty head wind, and Adams - a youthful man wearing an open-necked shirt and a fiber hat with madras band - was having trouble keeping it on a true course. The problem didn't seem to bother him. "Isn't this thing great?" he shouted.

"It sure is," I said. "How long have you had it?"

"Almost three months."

"What did you fly before that?"

"Never flown before. There's nothing like it!"

I liked these adventures and profiles best - talking with scientists at the University of Florida's Citrus Experiment Station, walking the groves with growers, and visiting an orange baron who was born in a town that wasn't affected by cold snaps, so much so that it was named Frostproof, Florida.

That being said the middle part of the book, covering orange history, dragged me down. He gives example after example of anachronistic oranges in Renaissance paintings, details the introduction of oranges into different regions over time, and lists their myriad uses over the centuries. There were interesting facts in there but the list-y nature bored me. And do know that this book is a product of its times, so expect some casual and fleeting racism towards native peoples and African-Americans.

Oranges is good for the next time you want a light, interesting, fact-filled read, especially if you need a break from heavier stuff.
Profile Image for Andrew.
397 reviews8 followers
February 19, 2021
This short book is packed with interesting information about oranges (and citrus more generally), from the history of oranges, to the details of modern orange cultivation and production. We learn about the science of citrus and how weather impacts the flavor of oranges and the health of the trees that grow them. All of that is quite interesting, and the author provides all of that in a narrative that is easy to read and absorb.

The problem is that this book was written in the mid-1960s, and it doesn't appear that there have been any newer editions with updated information. I found myself wondering about the development of new technologies in the cultivation and production of oranges in the 50+ years since this book was written. Have they developed new techniques for protecting the groves from freezes? Are there new technologies for harvesting the oranges or producing concentrate? Has modern genetics revealed any surprising new information about the history of the orange? These are just some of the questions I found myself asking as I reached the end of the book.
Profile Image for Christie Bane.
1,044 reviews11 followers
April 7, 2023
This book was written in 1966, so it's a little dated, but it was still quite a good read. It's all about oranges, specifically the orange (and broader citrus) industry in Florida. It discusses the history of the orange, the growth of citrus groves in Florida, the shift from individual growers to factories and corporations, the different types of oranges, and the shift from marketing fresh oranges to marketing primarily concentrate. Aside from the obviously dated things (like reference to technologies), this book reads like something contemporary, and in fact makes me wish I had a contemporary version (although it was fascinating to feel transported back to the '60's in Florida, which I obviously was not alive to experience).
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