Gaga for Grapefruit

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Photo by Collin Pollock via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Collin Pollock via Flickr Creative Commons

Neil Steinberg

Neil Steinberg

Today’s piece is by Neil Steinberg who writes a blog called Every Goddamn Day for the Chicago Sun Times. He writes literally every goddamn day, I don’t know how he does it! A Chicago friend kept forwarding me his pieces because she knew I’d like them and I finally subscribed to the blog myself. I love his writing, and I love what he has to say about one of my favorite fruits. It’s a long piece but well worth reading! Neil says he eats only raw grapefruit, but I thought I’d give you a recipe for a grapefruit-poppyseed cake, a new take on the traditional lemon.

There is nothing interesting to say about grapefruit.

Regular readers will recognize that admission as an earthquake, coming from me.

Because I believe that there is something interesting to say about everything.

But grapefruit has thwarted me.

If the subject were oranges, well, that would be another matter. Oranges would be easy. Books have been written about oranges.

At least one book, a good one, Oranges, by the great John McPhee.

Or limes. My God, limes, just the British naval aspect alone could fill a week’s worth of posts: Grog. Limeys. Scurvy.

Photo by Peter Massas via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Peter Massas via Flickr Creative Commons

Not to forget key lime pie.

There is no grapefruit pie.

Even lemons. How did troublesome cars ever get called “lemons?” I’d love to find out.

But grapefruits….They’re big. And heavy.  And ……. delicious.

Grapefruit, straight up, for breakfast

I eat a grapefruit almost every day for breakfast. One entire grapefruit — no halving and segmenting—too messy and time consuming. No sugar or sweetening or demure half maraschino cherry—defeats the purpose.

One orb, peeled, like an orange, eaten in segments, the separation of which can be a true challenge, tearing away all that white coating, but worth it, when you pop the first segment, feeling the sweet, nourishing grapefruit goodness coursing through my system, jump-starting my brain.

Most of my days begin with a grapefruit—220 breakfasts in 2014, by my count, and I would have eaten grapefruit even more often, but sometimes there are none in the house, sometimes I do get sick of them – “grapefruited out” is how I put it – or just feel like an English muffin or a bowl of Wheat Chex instead. But if I do, usually I regret not sticking with the grapefruit. Cereal leaves you hungry; a grapefruit sticks with you.

And it should be red grapefruit; in my mind, and perhaps even in reality, red grapefruit tastes sweet; and also tends to come from Texas, where the red variety began as a mutation in 1929.

Must be the citric acid, which is in all citrus, of course, or the lycopene, which accounts for the pinkish yellow of grapefruit and it thought to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.

I suppose I could work up a nostalgic post on eating grapefruit. My grandmother every year would send a case of grapefruits up from Florida in the winter, a great luxury, because how were we supposed to get them otherwise?

Or there was the time, at the Royal Cafe in London, when we all ordered grapefruits baked in kirsch, because really, how often do you get the chance? Any my mother, having never seen a salt cellar before, and thinking it was sugar, dosed salt all over the warm delicacy.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in the unforgettable grapefruit scene from "The Public Enemy."

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in the unforgettable grapefruit scene from “The Public Enemy.”

But I want to do better than that. I suppose I could troll pop culture. Yoko Ono titled a book of random musings Grapefruit, but to find out why I’d have to read it, and I’m not willing to go that far.

An unforgettable movie scene

Better to find refuge in the cinema. No great movie scene collection used to be complete without Jimmy Cagney mashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face in “The Public Enemy.” But given our times, that moment has lost its whimsy.

One problem with finding lore on grapefruits is they’re a recent development. Oranges go back thousands of years, in China. But what appears to have been grapefruit, referred to as “forbidden fruit” by the British, a nod to the Garden of Eden, were noticed in the Caribbean around 1700.

“It thus appears reasonable to assume that the name ‘grapefruit’ originated in Jamaica, and has been used since 1814,” Walton B. Sinclair writes in his 667-page The Grapefruit: Its Composition, Physiology and Products.

By 1830 grapefruit were in Florida, which leads the production in the U.S., which leads the world.

According to Citrus: A History, by Pierre Laszlo, the variety of names for grapefruit include pomello, the British term (the 12-volume 1978 Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for “grapefruit,” but tucks the word in a list of derivatives under “grape,” identifying it as a U.S. term, so chosen, I found elsewhere, because the fruit bunch in the trees like giant grapes).

Laszlo continues with shaddock, then pamplemousse, which is French. He doesn’t mention it, but German for grapefruit is …. ready? … grapefruit. Kind of a lack of imagination on their part but then, with grapefruit, that’s par for the course.

Photo by Stefan Van der Straeten via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Stefan Van der Straeten via Flickr Creative Commons

Orange is a color. Lemon is a color. Grapefruit is a … well … grapefruit. Its only creative use as an adjective is “Grapefruit League,” baseball farm teams in Florida and Arizona, where grapefruits are grown.

While looking at oranges, some of McPhee’s gaze fell upon grapefruit, and, unlike me, he has no problem unearthing grapefruit-related wonders.

“Citrus does not come true from seed,” he writes. “If you plant an orange seed, a grapefruit might spring up. if you plant a seed of that grapefruit, you might get a bitter lemon.”  Thus the trees can be grafted together, to dramatic effect.

“A single citrus tree can be turned into a carnival,” he continues, “with lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, and oranges all ripening on its branches at the same time.”

Yowza. I didn’t know that. And neither did you. But now we both do.

Hunter S. Thompson’s fave

The only writer beside myself I know of who loves grapefruit was – not to compare us in any other fashion – Hunter S. Thompson. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is rich with the softball-sized fruit.

His Samoan attorney orders from room service, along with the club sandwiches, shrimp cocktails and rum, nine grapefruits.

Grapefruit poem“’Vitamin C,” he explains. “We’ll need all we can get.

In the novel, grapefruits are practically a leitmotif: they’re chopped apart with razor sharp knives; they’re moved out into the trunk with the luggage; they become Thompson’s only source of sustenance at one point: “I’d eaten nothing but grapefruit for about twenty hours and my head was adrift from its moorings.”

He carries grapefruit in his satchel, pulling one out on an airplane and slicing it apart with a hunting knife, which makes a stewardess nervous.

“I noticed her watching me closely, so I tried to smile,” he writes, explaining: “I never go anywhere without grapefruit…It’s hard to get a really good one – unless you’re rich.”

A grapefruit is key in one of the oddest sequences in the book, early on, when Thompson hurls one into the bathtub where his attorney is having some kind of drug-induced psychic breakdown while listening to Jefferson Airplane at full volume.

“I let the song build while I sorted through the pile of fat ripe grapefruit next to the basin. The biggest one of the lot weighed almost two pounds. I got a good Vida Blue fastball grip on the f***er and just as ‘White Rabbit’ peaked I lashed it into the tub like a cannonball.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought of that. Because grapefruit are huge, we store them in the second-hand refrigerator in the basement, and I’ll tramp down to get one for breakfast. Walking back up the stairs, that phrase, “a good Vida Blue fastball grip”  – Blue was a hotshot lefty for the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s – pops frequently into mind, and I’ll happily bounce the grapefruit on my open palm, sometimes even arrange my fingers around it as if I were about to fire it across the plate, and smile, thinking: grapefruit.

A poetic tribute

Well, I guess we’ve dug up enough on the subject. Maybe something of interest after all. As I was wrapping up, I bumped into Craig Arnold’s lovely little poem, “Meditation on a Grapefruit,” that sums up the breakfast process far better than I ever could.

This perfect paean appeared in Poetry in October, 2009. As a tribute, it turned out, not just to the fruit, but to the poet himself. The previous spring, while exploring Kuchinoerabu-jima, a miniscule Japanese island, he had fallen into a volcano and died.

Which is a long way from grapefruit. But that’s the marvelous thing about grapefruit: one will take you a long way. Or at least until lunchtime.

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  1. valencia says

    Grapefruit (Toronja in Spanish) is not just for breakfast! My FLorida based citrus growing family has it for dessert or salad. Ambrosia:grapefruit, oranges, pineapple, coconut was a tradition at Christmas and versatile for anytime of day. A wonderful winter melange for those up north too. Ten, salad on top of lettuce grapefruit sections in pieces, my grandad added french dressing! When the news came that grapefruit conflicted with effectiveness of certain pills sales of juice fell. Blending grapefruit juice with orange is great if you like pulpy texture. The older the tree, the more the seeds, but our whites were as sweet as those small pink things that lacked seeds. This seasonal fruit at my house here in Michigan, is usually served cut in half, with a great citrus knife to carve out each section. Some folks have steak knives we have grapefruit knives. After eating the innards, sqeeze out the juice from the halves and drink it up from the bowl! ZESTY flavor AHHH , and lips smack out a sound to match the sensation.

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