An ode to citrus

I mentioned this in last week’s post, but citrus plays a key role in our winter diet. We eat a lot of fresh fruit on the regular, mostly our gorgeous local peaches and cherries and apples, but in winter our counters are piled high with grapefruit and clementines and oranges of every variety. Is it local? Absolutely not, although with the warming trends we’re seeing here it may be soon. Is it necessary? Absolutely yes, because “I feel like I’m swallowing the sun, and it’s so dark outside.” There are a thousand good reasons to incorporate more citrus in your diet, but for the moment, let’s just focus on how it provides a thin slice of joy during an increasingly bleak season. (Also it’s far cheaper than buying totally unregulated “vitamin C capsules” in little plastic bottles.)

More sunshine, please.

Lots of people remember receiving oranges in Christmas stockings, back when food was truly seasonal and therefore quite precious and rare. Citrus fruit is of course available year-round nowadays, but it really is best in the northern hemisphere’s winter. American citrus production is concentrated in California and Florida; California grows most of the citrus used for fresh eating, whereas Florida’s production is focused on juice. Texas and Arizona both grow some commercial citrus too, but their numbers pale in comparison to the Left Coast and Right Coast groves, even though Florida is suffering from a variety of citrus diseases. Brazil, Spain and Mexico dominate the world citrus market.

Did you know that most mammals can synthesize their own vitamin C – but that humans and other primates cannot? (Capybaras and guinea pigs can’t either. Don’t feel bad.) During the eighteenth century, disease killed far more British soldiers than military action; scurvy was the leading cause of death, particularly for sailors without access to fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time. Though anecdotal evidence suggested that lemon and lime juice (and sauerkraut) prevented scurvy, and the few hardy sailors who consumed shipboard rats did not contract it (rats can synthesize their own vitamin C!), it wasn’t until very late in the century that citrus fruit was issued in sailors’ rations. Once one of the world’s most devastating diseases, scurvy is now rarely seen in the developed world, except in cases of severe malnutrition.

An ideal winter salad, with bitter greens, pomegranate, sharp Manchego and lots of citrus.

In addition to preventing scurvy, vitamin C also helps with non-heme (plant-based) iron absorption. This means that you’ll get even more benefit from your iron-rich kale and spinach salad if you spangle it with bright citrus! Make a simple citrus vinaigrette by combining three parts good olive oil with one part citrus juice (any variety or combination of citrus works) in a Mason jar. Add finely minced shallot or red onion, a bit of raw garlic if your tastes swing that way, generous amounts of salt and pepper, and a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Shake well to combine, then taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. If you’re using tart lemons a drizzle of honey wouldn’t go amiss here, to balance the sharp citrus tang, and any chopped odds and ends of fresh herbs can be put to good use in this preparation, too. This will keep indefinitely in the fridge; you’ll just need to give it a good shake before serving as it’s not a true emulsified dressing.

Hot lemon and ginger tonic with a touch of honey will set you straight.

Most Americans consume their citrus in the form of orange juice. Despite what the “healthy breakfast” campaigns would have you believe, fruit juice is not actually healthy – it’s simply pure liquefied sugar that hits your system hard because it has no beneficial fiber to slow it down. We don’t drink any juice for this reason, but we do drink quite a lot of our homemade lemon-ginger tonic, especially later in the day when the icy weather calls for a hot drink but good sense dictates that it’s time to lay off the strong black coffee. No recipe is required for this; we simply combine lemon juice (or lemon slices) and finely grated ginger (use a Microplane if you have one) with hot water to taste. No fresh ginger? Powdered will work fine, just whisk well. You can add a spoonful of honey to sweeten the deal. Strain out the aromatics or not, as you like. This easy winter drink tastes nourishing and restorative, like you’re doing something kind for yourself.

Is it any wonder we crave color in the depths of a gray winter?

I’ll freely admit that our rural location does not offer the same spectacular citrus selection I was truly spoiled by in the big city. We can of course find standard navel oranges, grapefruits, lemon and limes. On occasion we’ll get cara cara or blood oranges, or perhaps an unexpected surprise of tangelos or Meyer lemons. We have the branded net bags of “Halos” or “Cuties,” which are sometimes (but not always) clementines. But Buddha’s hand, or kishu mandarins, or pomelos, or Key limes, or yuzu, or kumquats, or bergamot sour oranges? Never have they been spotted here, and likely they never will. If you, however, live anywhere near a specialty grocer or citrus groves, definitely seek out these more unusual varieties – they’re well worth your time and money, if only to taste something completely new. When we finally install our greenhouse, I plan on purchasing dwarf citrus trees; whether or not they ever bear edible fruit, I’ll still be able to inhale the intoxicating scent of the blossoms.

Almond thumbprints with lemon curd and orange marmalade.

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant (think of using lemon juice to prevent artichokes or avocadoes from browning) and is essential for the body’s tissue production, including bone, blood vessels and collagen. Despite its reputation, however, no credible studies have proven that it mitigates cold symptoms – this seems to be purely urban legend stemming from one single book published in the 1960s. As with all vitamins and minerals, it’s much better to obtain these nutrients from whole foods than from powders, pills or supplements, especially because these real foods offer plenty of fiber, too. Other great sources of vitamin C that you might want to add to your diet: kiwifruit, red, orange or yellow bell peppers, pomegranates, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes and potatoes. Of course, all of these foods have lots of other vitamins and minerals too, but a little extra vitamin C boost can’t hurt – especially not this winter.

Wishing you a healthy winter season filled with thin slices of joy everywhere you look.

Mindset book club

I think it’s fair to say that things are not going well out there. Between incessant doomscrolling and paralyzing anxiety attacks, I’m desperately searching out reading material that calms and soothes, rather than inflames and terrorizes – so I scoured our rainbow library for books that I thought fit the bill. Read on for a few suggestions.

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self ed. by Ellyn Spragins

This is a lovely book, filled with precisely what the title advertises: prominent, successful women write letters to their younger selves, offering guidance, wisdom, consolation, advice and solace. I’ve thought a lot about how we’ll look back on this intensely difficult time, and what I might like to tell my own younger self. I particularly loved this quote from photographer Joyce Tenneson: “Your best work will come in moments of grace.” Perhaps we all need to focus on showing more grace to both ourselves and others.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is certainly best known for Wild, but she also wrote a gorgeous, heartbreaking advice column called Dear Sugar, which has been translated into plays and podcasts and all sorts of other media. In a dark time, the thing you need most might be to know that others have experienced pain and heartache and betrayal and trauma too, and have still survived even after all that, and that’s exactly what this book offers. Plus, there are some laugh-out-loud moments which will have you guffawing through your tears. This one hits all the right notes.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

I won’t lie – unlike the other books in this list, this one is most definitely not an easy read. That said, it’s worth your time and your contemplation. I’ve read this on a number of occasions over the years, and always find something different. As the title suggests, the book is a treatise on living in the now, and since I spend the majority of my mental energy either dwelling in the past or agonizing over the future, this provides the nudge I need to stay present. Easier said than done, obviously.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I love Gretchen Rubin, and her calm, matter-of-fact approach to improving everyday life. This terrific book argues that seeking your own happiness is not, as many would assume, a selfish and self-centered pursuit. Instead, people who are happier are more likely to help other people, to contribute to charity, to volunteer, and to work at improving the world around them. It’s the old oxygen mask adage writ large – once you’re content, you have the space and energy to help others around you become content. As with all of Rubin’s work, The Happiness Project is exhaustively researched but woven throughout with enough personal anecdotes to keep it from feeling too textbook-y. Worth the read, if only to open your mind to the possibility of small joys everywhere.

O’s Little Book of Calm & Comfort

Say what you will about Oprah, but she and her team know how to pick talent. This little book contains an absolute wealth of spectacular writing, presented in short, easy-to-read vignettes. A favorite quote, especially relevant now: “We live in a hard world, my friends. Sometimes it’s extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it. But what if you are the light? What if you’re the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for? How we behave matters, because within human society everything is contagious – sadness and anger, yes, but also patience and generosity. Which means we all have more influence than we realize.” You will find something that resonates in this book, I promise.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

“But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels – that’s creative living.” Please, go read this book. Then make something – a poem, a song, a scarf, a painting, a pot of soup. Anything. Make anything. Just make something. Producing something creative, ephemeral or not, can be one of the only worthwhile responses to the maelstrom we’re currently caught in.

The Joy Diet by Martha Beck

The subtitle of this book, “10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life,” sums it up pretty accurately. As with The Happiness Project, this is a gentle roadmap towards cultivating joy in your everyday existence. Some assignments – like “Every day, make sure that you laugh at least thirty times” – might be a bit tough to achieve given our current circumstances, but there is a lot of worthwhile information here if you can keep your mind open. We’re all searching for leadership, for guidance, because none of us have the slightest clue about what’s going on right now, and sometimes a list of exercises from a smart teacher can help us stay on the path.

And then of course there’s this: your own writing. I’ve certainly scribbled in my journal more during this pandemic century than I have in the previous five years, and when the spiraling panic and anxiety and despair threaten to overwhelm, and the ever-present tears are prickling the back of my throat, I try to get everything out on paper. There is a huge amount of research that clearly demonstrates how journaling can help manage anxiety and depression, and since we’re currently living through the largest and most severe mental health crisis in history, I’m hopeful that others have picked up a pen and notebook, too. It’s cheap, convenient therapy, accessible to everyone no matter the situation. And you can always (safely) burn what you write, which – I’ll freely admit – is another favorite form of emotional processing.

Here are a few of N’s suggestions for comforting reading material.

A few other mental-health strategies I’m relying upon: lots of water. Lots of citrus, because it tastes like liquid sunshine. Music – Ye Olde Classical suits my soul rather nicely at the moment. Peppermint-scented tea, or soap, or whatever. Fresh bread with soft salted butter. Layer up and get moving outside. Take care of the animals. Ten jumping jacks. Dance. Sing. Dance and sing at the same time. Anything, no matter how odd, to keep the demons at bay.

What are you doing to stay calm and in the moment, dear friends? Are you reading? Sewing? Baking? Writing? Cooking? Knitting? Planning your spring garden? We’d love to hear your survival techniques during these challenging times.

P.S. Need more book recommendations? Try this, this, this or perhaps this.

Winter descends

“In a year that stripped life to bare fundamentals, the natural world has become our shared story. Seasons have offered the rare reminder that the world moves on even as our sense of time blurs.”

“The undeniable hardship of this winter is a reminder that for much of human history, particularly in colder climates, winter was a season simply to be survived. Winter is a primal time of death and loss, and a time for grief. It reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human.”

“I’ve stopped trying to handle the darkness. I let the darkness handle me instead. Most of the time all it wants to do is to hold me for a while – slow me down, keep me from running, cover me up long enough to remember that being in the dark doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. It means I’m alive, and this is part of the deal.”

“The great irony of winter is that the moment darkness is greatest is also the moment light is about to return. Each year the solstice comes with the promise that the next day will be brighter.”

“…you have lived through long nights before. It is precisely at the point that the night is longest and darkest that you’ve actually turned a corner. Look for the smallest bit of beauty around you. That very much resonates today, at a time where it seems like the mega-systems are all broken or falling apart, to return your gaze to the small.”

“I have spent some long, scary nights waiting for the sun to come up. There have also been some long, barren seasons when I feared the sap would never rise again. The hardest thing is to keep trusting that the balance will shift again even when I can’t imagine how. So far it has.”

Look for the smallest bit of beauty around you, dear friends. Stay warm, stay rested, stay nourished, stay healthy and trust that the growing season will be here in good time.

(All quotes from “Winter Descends, a Dark, Bitter Echo of Our Past,” by Elizabeth Dias, The New York Times, December 20, 2020.)