Citrus: A History

What was most interesting to me about Citrus: A History was not any of these main threads of the story: origins in Asia, spread by Jewish and Arab trade and settlement in Europe, its spread the the New World with colonialism and slavery, the connection to real estate empires in Florida and California. Other intriguing sections of the book include a citrus grower in the Carribbean who was a pioneer in the anti-slavery movement, and the role of citrus crate art in promoting the myth of California. But what was most interesting to me about the book is its premature victory hymn to the triumph of industrial agriculture.
The author, Pierre Laszlo, is an emeritus chemistry professor, and he is attracted to the stories of the early and mid-20th century government scientists who innovated in finding and developing new strains of citrus and growing methods. Without irony or caveat, he praises the great California irrigation projects that send Northern California’s water through the Sacramento/San Joaquin delta into the Central Valley, to feed vast citrus plantations. If a dedicated policy and scientific program was able to create today’s monoculture agricultural empires, a different policy and scientific research could create different, and more sustainable results.
An Amazon reviewer criticized the book for being like a cut-and-paste collection of Wikipedia entries. The criticism has some merit. Orange: A History, takes many of its anecdotes from easily-found secondary sources The book certainly does not have the coherent narrative and research of classics in the genre, like Sidney Mintz Sweetness and Power, which tells a powerful and tragic story of the rise of sugar production through the colonial system, and Cod, by Mike Kurlansky, which tells the tragic story of the decline of the once-ubiquitous Atlantic fish. Some cursory browsing finds some of the claims in Orange dubious. It’s a nice story that citrus was first brought to Europe and North America by Jews using the citron to celebrate Sukkot, but it is contradicted by other easy-to-find sources.
Summary: if you’d enjoy a collection of anecdotes about the history of citrus, you’ll enjoy this book. If you want to read some brilliant nonfiction on the history of food, read Mintz on Sugar or Kurlansky on Cod instead if you haven’t already.

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