It's been bitterly cold (cold, at least, for a lifelong Angeleño) for the past few days. Winter usually lies easier than this in January. The start of winter can sometimes be another spring, until the rains begin.
When it was cold like this when I was a boy, the radio would warn orange growers of the risk of nighttime frost, which occasionally ruined the region's crop if temperatures fell night after night. Growers would set out smudge pots -- oil-fueled burners that could stall the effect of a hard frost for a night or two by sending up dense clouds of soot. The pots didn't heat the air significantly; the soot took water vapor out of the air, preventing moisture from condensing on the fruit and freezing. The pots were effective enough, unless temperatures fell much below 30 degrees.
You could smell the oil fumes at night. You could see the effects of smudging in the dirty daytime air.
The urgency of smudging was forced on growers because tree ripened Navel oranges were picked in December through January. Back East (as we said then), an orange tree in winter -- golden with fruit among the dark green, almost black, leaves -- was the guarantor of Southern California's status as a blessèd place.
Like a lot of what made Southern California boom, the mythology of the orange tree concealed a harsher reality. Oranges were an industrial-scale product that depended on low-wage labor, from pruners to pickers to packers. Segregated housing and schools kept the field workers on the outskirts of towns like Orange and Santa Ana. The Klan kept dissent in check. The grower associations, the Citrus Protective League, and the co-operatives that managed the groves made sure the entire system worked efficiently and profitably.
The orange groves of Orange County were being bulldozed when I was a boy, but in the foothills of Riverside and San Bernardino counties the long, straight lines of trees still rose up the slopes and continued down into the next swale, the groves set off from one another by rows of eucalyptus trees that served as windbreaks. Those groves of "golden apples of the sun" are almost entirely gone now.
You can still see, hanging over a side yard fence or standing in the front yard of an older house, a remnant orange tree from the time when a housewife might have picked her own fruit to make the family's morning orange juice. The tree will be weighted down. The fruit will be nearly softball size. The tree has grown old and gone wild in its suburban isolation. There's no telling if the pulp will be sweet or bitter, if it drip with golden juice or have scarcely any.
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