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I bought the most delightful tangerine yesterday. It was plump and firm and had just the right amount of squish that a tangerine needs so that it can almost peel itself. It made me smile.
At this wintery and white time of year, I begin to crave colour. And juice. When I bit into that most perfect tangerine I tasted happiness and an explosion of memory.
Nearly 30 years ago my husband, three-year-old son and I were spending several months in India. We were midway through a three-day train trip from Chennai in Tamil Nadu to Agra in Uttar Pradesh.
Our family was a little fatigued halfway into our second-class rail trip and we were covered in a fine layer of dust and soot. We quite enjoyed everything about “train cuisine” in India and marvelled at how delicious and inexpensive our chapatti and chickpea curry to-go meals were, but at this point everything we looked at was brown. Even the landscape that we watched roll by looked dry and parched. The dust and the noise were getting to us.
Suddenly the train pulled into what seemed like an oasis of green and a flurry of women wearing colourful saris rushed onto the train balancing large shallow baskets on their heads filled to the brim with huge and perfect mandarin oranges. These oranges were covered in a film of cool moisture and they breathed fresh air and life into our train car with their bounty. They were spectacular. The women were beautiful and so were the oranges. All of a sudden there was colour and sweetness and moisture and a female presence that saturated the train with life and hope. We had energy again.
We bought a couple dozen of these glorious specimens and spent the rest of our trip peeling and eating the most delicious mandarin oranges we had ever tasted in our lives.
They reminded me of another orange experience that I had had 10 years prior. These oranges were connected to an oasis in Toronto that I had not known existed until I rented a room in a house nearby. I was in my first year at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University) and I didn’t know that there was life on the east side of Yonge Street. There is nothing like discovering funky areas of cities that you didn’t know would be so fun. I’ve experienced it all over Canada. And it is always a treat.
My landlady in Riverdale told me where to catch the streetcar to get to my school downtown. On that first streetcar trip, I caught a glimpse of another Chinatown – one I didn’t know existed. There were grocers and cooking supply shops and all the loveliness of the much bigger Chinatown near my art school. There was a fine and inexpensive restaurant called Ka Hee that I and the young family I lived with would go to every Friday night. And there were oranges. Lovely navel oranges that had just the right amount of squish. Huge and fresh and firm navel oranges whose peels almost fell off before your eyes. These navel oranges were always at their ripest and most peak of deliciousness in midwinter. And they cost pennies to buy. Where did these oranges come from? And why was it only in Chinatown (both the little and the big) that these handsome and delectable oranges resided? I don’t know the answer. I have never seen oranges like it again. It may be because I now live out in the woods two hours from Toronto and my local grocers just can’t seem to find the source of these oranges or it may be that these oranges truly no longer exist. Were they a product of the times? I’m not sure and I’ve always wondered.
In the midst of all this Little Chinatown wonderfulness was an old-fashioned, grease-spattered, retro fish-and-chip shop. This restaurant was not retro because it tried to be retro. It was retro because it hadn’t changed for the 40 or so years that it had resided near the corner of Broadview and Gerrard. There was an old Orange Crush machine in the back with real glass bottles and freezing cold Orange Crush that would rush out of the machine with a wholesome clatter. It was very refreshing when drunk with your order. The fish and chips were wrapped up in newspaper with much flurrying and shouting and spraying of hot oil and hubbub behind a tall stained counter. It was frankly awesome. The restaurant and all its grease-filled loveliness; the fine crunch of the golden deep-fried and battered halibut (one large piece) and the double-fried chips all wrapped up in old newspaper, the Orange Crush and the little Chinatown right next door. I loved it all.
Neither Ka Hee nor the fish-and-chip shop exist any more. I am no longer a young art student but an older installation artist who lives outside the city. There is a pandemic. Hustle and bustle don’t exist for the moment.
But oranges and fish and chips still do.
Tiny pleasures are so good.
Michèle Karch-Ackerman lives in Buckhorn, Ont.
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