ROBERT ST. JOHN: Christmas citrus becomes a coveted gift in adulthood



A friend dropped by my house last week and gave me several Meyer lemons. They were perfect.

The Meyer lemon originated in China and many think it is a cross between a Mandarin orange and a lemon. I tend to agree. They are prolific in this part of the world and I know several people who have trees that are loaded down this time of year.

The Meyer lemon is slightly sweeter than a normal lemon and the skin is thinner. This is why one doesn’t see Meyer lemons in commercial grocery stores too often. Thinned-skin citrus doesn’t ship well. But if you have neighbors like mine, they need to travel only a few miles.

Meyer lemons are used in several dessert applications and many chefs preserve them. My favorite use is in iced tea. I typically like my iced tea with orange and mint. But I love tea mixed with lemonade. A squeeze of Meyer lemon into tea seems to be a happy compromise.

So is it strange that I have reached an age where a box of fresh citrus is considered an awesome Christmas gift and more welcome than a cake or a pie, or even better than a new album or article of clothing?

I grew up hearing my mother’s stories of depression-era Christmases when she and her brother received nothing but fresh fruit on Christmas morning. The story was told for a reason, the moral behind the oft-told fruit-for-Christmas story was: “You got a BB gun and a bike, it doesn’t matter what your friends received. Be happy and get over it. At least you didn’t get a basket of fruit.”

As a kid, I felt sorry for my mother. How could she be happy with nothing but fruit in her stocking? Ultimately, I guess she wasn’t happy. That’s why she was still griping about it 40 years later. It served as a good example, I guess. I was always grateful for whatever I received. Though she occasionally slipped a few oranges and apples into our stockings as a reminder of the all-I-ever-got-was-Christmas-fruit story.

Today, I would be happy with a fresh box of fruit. I’ve already got a bike and I no longer need a BB gun. Fruit seems pretty special to me today.

My favorite fruit used to be a peach. Then I ate the Clementine oranges of Italy and was an immediate convert. I love those things, “Clementinos” as the Italians call them. This time of year they are plentiful in Italy. Most are grown in Sicily and shipped up to the mainland.

The first time I bit into a Clementino I was hooked. It was a burst of sweet, juicy citrus, nothing sour or tart.

I knew from that moment on I was a Clementine guy. On the first American grocery store visit after the trip I bought a bag of Clementine oranges in a local store. I can’t remember if they were from California or South America, but I remember being disappointed by the flavor and texture. It didn’t come close.

I am sure we grow Clementine oranges as well as the ones in Sicily, I just haven’t found them yet. I hesitate to even mention this because I don’t want to be one of those people who come back from some faraway locale where they spent a good bit of time, and nothing over here measures up to the standards over there.

I knew a woman who lived in the United States but also had a home in France. She was a true Francophile. Nothing in America ever matched up to what the French were doing. It drove me crazy. In the words of Lewis Grizzard, “Delta is ready when you are.”

I’ll never be one of those people. I love Italy. I love a lot of what they do, what they believe, how they live, and what they eat. But I am, first and foremost, an American.

My across-the-street neighbor in my youth, Mary Virginia McKenzie, is a master of orange sweet rolls. Possibly the most perfect gift of all – citrus and sweet roll, what’s not to love?

I have been eating those sweet rolls every Christmas morning for 52 years. She dropped by the house with several tins last week. When I finally wrestled them away from my children, I stuck a few tins in the freezer where they will remain until Christmas Eve.

So, when it comes down to it, I guess I’ve been getting citrus for Christmas my entire life. Orange sweet rolls and Meyer lemons, what else could a man need? Go bless us everyone.

Robert St.John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.

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