While walking the perimeter of my land, I smelled a fragrant mock orange bush in flower. What makes it a mock is the fragrance of orange blossoms, without the fruit. A fruitless orange bush, blooms nectar for bees and butterflies, though like the Lorca poem, it sings the “Song of the Barren Orange Tree.”
“Cut my shadow from me. Free me from the torment
of seeing myself without fruit.”
I know a thing or two about the sentiment of that poem, myself infecund, tormented. I may smell sweet, but I produce no produce. I do not produce produce. I am a daughterless mother. I too am a mock.
The navel orange actually grows a second “twin” fruit opposite its stem. The second fruit remains underdeveloped, but from the outside, it resembles a human umbilicus, hence the name. Navels are part of the winter citrus family, an evergreen. That appearance of a navel on the orange is the result of a mutation, a conjoined twin, an aborted second orange that looks like a human navel. Navel orange blossoms lack viable pollen and ovules, so all their fruits are seedless. This is why it cannot reproduce through seeds or pollinate other citrus trees. To propagate them, growers graft navel orange stock onto a different orange tree’s rootstock. All navel oranges today are genetically identical to the original mutant navel orange.
A woman we met at a dive bar in Pacifica told us a story of her days as a wedding planner at an elite venue in San Francisco, the Legion of Honor, a perfect name, I thought, for a place to marry. She started by telling us that to reserve the location, at least a year in advance, a deposit of 40 K was required, non refundable. Once, she said, a couple had a $200,000 budget for flowers alone, pale pink roses, specifically, with which they spiraled around every neoclassical Ionic column, from every pillar, every rafter. The flowers were divinely beautiful she said, “like a pink cloud,” but something was very odd. There was no fragrance. No perfume. Odorless roses, an enigma. Designed as such, by science, because that many flowers, if full of their natural aroma, would take the place down with allergic sneezes and sniffles. Otherwise, the wedding- goers would be crying when the bride walked down the aisle, for sure, but because of scent, not sentiment. Oh yes, I said, I had once heard something about the prolific business of hybridizing pollen-less sterile sunflowers, designed by lab botanists to eliminate the yellow dander, and so to prevent the sprinkling of gold dust and saffron down the front of white satin and lace wedding gowns of those women who chose to carry sunflowers in their bridal bouquet.
Saffron, the most expensive spice by weight in the world, made from the long crimson stigmas of Crocus staves. Each female crocus produces just three stigmatas, and approximately 150 flowers, each carefully harvested by hand, are needed to produce just one gram of saffron.
Sterile, barren, and the opposite, ultra-prolific, fruits and flowers equal man-made mutations for human pleasure. So as not to bite down on a seed, so as not to get pollen dust on your dining room table, and so to sprinkle saffron threads over your expensive Spanish paella. So too, we use science and man, to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and also to conceive. A total mock, all of it. Mocks amuck.
Cut the top off of a navel orange and save it, you’ll use it later like a lid. Then, scoop out all of the pulp and leave just the hollow rind, like a bowl. Fill it with white cake batter with some of the orange juice and pulp added to the mix. Place the lid back on top and wrap the whole orange in foil twisted up on top. Cook this orange cake on a the hot coals of a campfire and you will have a delectable, piquant, soft, fluffy gateau for your campfire dessert.
The word piquant, one of my favorite words, unpronounceable, involves the full use of the mouth to say it out loud. The same way that eating foods described as such involve the full use of the mouth. Reminds me too, of the word pickwickian, from a Dickens novel, Pickwick, the character, an orange-shaped man, had a round face, and very round middle. Like the bloated, inflamed, and misunderstood words that too are pickwickian, intended or taken in a sense other than the obvious or literal one.
The segments of an orange, called supremes, pronounced su-prems. A verb, to supreme an orange, to peel and separate, to pull out the bitter white pith. The number of sections or carpels that citrus fruits have is determined by the number of ovules the particular flower and fruit has. Ten is standard for oranges, ten little baby orange fetuses, all nestled up in their comfy orange nest.
Earl Grey tea, from the oil extracted from the Seville Bergamot orange peel. Earl Grey, when imbibed in excess can cause fasciculations, little spasms under the skin from firing deficits in the motor neurons. Not all essential oils are essential.
My mother once told me that induction of labor is like taking the cake out of the oven when it might not be done in the middle. “How do you know that the baby’s brain is done cooking? That the brain won’t be all jiggly if you force the birth?” A forced horoscope, she said, was messing with astrology, picking the date and time, a determinism, of which man has no right over God or mythology. She taught me everything. Including, not to believe in a God, or a man, but yet, to trust God and man. She taught me to love words, like the difference between peeked and peaked. And to love tastes, like citrus cakes cooked on campfires, with special delight in the wood fired char, the caramelized acidity. And to love the flower that becomes the fruit. To love the scent alone. That life can be a metaphorical ambrosia. But not to spend it navel-gazing, which is exactly what this is.
The heat of the oven can cause baking powder to react further and cause more air bubbles while setting a cake’s structure. Using proper oven temperature is important to allow the cake to rise before the structure sets. If the oven is too hot, the cake will set too fast before the air bubbles have formed. If the oven is not hot enough, the cake will rise too much, then fall in the center before it is set. And never ever open the oven door to check on the cake, use the oven light instead.
In school we learned in order to diagnosis inflammatory breast cancer, you look for peau d’orange, a dimpling, puckering, thickening of the skin over one breast, such that it looks like an orange peel in appearance.
What is orange? An orange is orange. All I can remember from a favorite childhood poem.
My sisters told me that my mom had cancer right after we ordered dinner at a sushi restaurant. Inflammatory breast cancer, they said, is not genetic, forgetting that I work in women’s health, knowing only right then that I was their baby sister, my mother’s baby. It is, however, the worst kind. It kills you. My textbook said that a seed of dormant cancer lies within and an assault, like an infection or an injury blows the seed open like a cancer bomb. That is how I remembered it. A bomb. My sisters had just pulled the grenade pin, the visco fuse. My life had just been bombed. My root system was destroyed. A supreme su-prem. The weight of all of the stigmata, of all of the crocus flowers in all of the world, weighed on me.
I was stoic in response and with no tears, I said, “She is going to die. We only have 6 months at best,” as they tried to placate me, to placate themselves. I felt peaked. Like a sunken cake.
We had only the memories, the past, and a very short future. We had the expectation of summer. Expectation, like imagining the perfect cake. Like peeking in the oven.
“It’s not like they can just scoop out the cancer like scooping pulp from an orange,” I thought, but did not say. It would have been a pithy, inflammatory remark. Inside, I was bitter. Like I had just eaten a piece of bitter fruit. And sad. So sad. The lid under my eye fasciculated and this twitch went on for years. Even after my mother did die, 8 months later. Like I had had too much bergamot in my tea. Oh, to be. To be both a motherless daughter and a daughterless mother, when everything really did seem fruitless.
We had all of the summers that summer. We had all of the fresh cantaloupe, cut up and eaten with messy fingers under the tasseled yellow umbrella on the back porch. We had all of the Sunday drives to view wildflowers on the side of the road, the lilies in the field in Williamsburg where my father pulled over to take a photo of her. We had the beach days, the sunburns, the smell of coconut and aloe. We had the ball games, the night time yard games, the summer picnics with potato salad and homemade vanilla ice cream on the 4th of July. We had girl scout camp and campfire cooking, all the charred bits, the blistered edges, the freckled shoulders. We had the battlefield tours, lemon juice in our hair, canoe rides, lightning bugs, the dinner bell, the neighborhood, bee stings. We had her sunny disposition, her red cheeks, and her favorite summer color, coral.
It was May. We had the summer. It would be bittersweet, sugar enhanced by fire, an orange cake.