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11.21.07

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Citrus: A History

Review by Michael S. Gant


Pierre Laszlo's curious study of oranges, lemons, clementines, grapefruits and more tart treats skips lightly through the botanical and cultural history of the fruit that conquered scurvy on the high seas and helped kick-start the 20th-century economies of California and Florida. This erudite gallimaufry (a chemist by trade, Laszlo has also written a book devoted entirely to salt) offers detours on everything from the construction of Italian orangeries to the sometimes sordid politics of early Southern California (the aside on citrus land baron George Chaffey, who also created the Mutual Water Company, sounds like the source material for Chinatown). The text takes time out for recipes (the lime chutney sounds good) and citrus imagery in art and poetry. A segment (that's plainly the right word in this context) discusses the themes and motifs of California orange-crate labels, of which, the author calculates, there are some 8,000 designs (thus explaining their persistent abundance in antique stores). Oranges ripen in winter, which adds to the seasonal nature of this tangy grab bag.

(By Pierre Laszlo; University of Chicago; 262 pages; $25 cloth)


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