Memories of eating
Words by Rebecca May Johnson | Photography by Sophie Davidson
Every few months Rebecca May Johnson writes a different kind of list, exploring the annals of memory contained in edible objects. Every time we eat something we are also experiencing the memories of the last time we ate it, and the time before that, and the time before that… Hundreds of moments become crystallised in everyday objects, whether it’s a piece of toast, an apple, or a pint of milk. They may languish on shopping lists, but every edible is an archive.
After spring equinox, the season of oranges must end soon.
Thinking about oranges began in Sicily in September, where green orange trees were all around us holding green oranges that while looking unripe and inedible, were sometimes edible. And with The Godfather and Don Corleone’s preoccupation with the Sicilian oranges of his childhood that he could not let go of. In New York he needed to handle an orange, to peel it, to taste it and to follow an orange to his death: to live and die for oranges.
Facts about oranges:
One of my worst food memories is of oranges. Long ago in Berlin: a confusing year of drinking and drinking and insisting on drinking until there was nothing left in the house and dancing and then walking around feeling awful and then, the orange. The orange that I bought from Lidl during orange season when the cold burnt my face; it was an orange against the drinking and against the lost feeling I couldn’t shake. I bought the webbed bag of fruit as a tonic to all that, as a way of following advice that had not been given recently or for years. It was a way of following my mother’s advice even if it had never been given, my fantasy of good advice which I planned to absorb with each segment. I peeled it like it was a doctor, like an oracle, like a mentor, like a mother, but when I gazed full of hope into the wet orange flesh it moved. The orange flesh moved, wriggled and was alive and I was not hallucinating. The orange was full of maggot larvae. The oranges were the birthplace of a colony of decay whose life was throbbing evidence against mine and I screamed and threw it against the wall in the kitchen and it splatted and sprayed orange juice and larvae all over, running into each other in drips down the wall. I have never been more shocked. I ate no more oranges that winter. I think of it quite often; it took years to stop seeing hideous movements in every orange.
"The orange flesh moved, wriggled and was alive and I was not hallucinating. The orange was full of maggot larvae"
The orange at the end of a sock every Christmas Eve, which I keep and don’t eat. I save it until I might need it like the amulet of medicine round the neck of that girl in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but usually it dries out or rots before I eat it. I find it months later, sad and brown under a pile of discarded wrapping paper or unpaired socks. I was saving it until the moment I needed it, but by that point it is too late for the orange.
Now I try to eat an orange straightaway and force myself not to pause and think of the larvae. I always have to do it consciously and it doesn’t come naturally. I think of friends who casually eat lots of oranges and try to emulate them. I ate one recently, a week ago, and I have been carrying the peelings round in my rucksack ever since, evidence that I ate it. And when I forget it’s there and put my hand in, looking for a pen or my house keys, my hand emerges smelling of orange oil, and not covered with larvae. I ate the orange and I prove it to myself with its beautifully drying peel, not rotting. The peelings are still there.
Oranges are generous by nature. Their architecture shows how the whole should be shared. If another person is present it is essential to offer them segments of an orange (satsumas, clementines and tangerines too). I have never knowingly not shared an orange that I have peeled in the company of someone I know, or at least offered it.
That my mother would peel oranges with a knife and wrap them in cling film for packed lunches as a child is an act of kindness and care that is almost too much to contemplate without welling up. When I peel oranges with a knife for those I love I think of my mother.
"Oranges are generous by nature. Their architecture shows how the whole should be shared"
I am obsessed with segmenting oranges and removing all pith if I serve them in a salad or for a pudding. I cut off all of the external peel and pith with a knife, and then I carefully insert the knife into each segment to extract the fruit from the white pappy membrane, flawless and pith-free. I take great joy in doing this. My mum learned this technique in a hotel kitchen in Wales where she worked as a teenager. She is meticulous about it and now, so am I.
The important oranges in Deborah Levy’s book Things I Don’t Want to Know, her response to George Orwell’s Why I Write:
“For some reason I remembered the way I used to eat oranges as a child in Johannesburg. First I had to find one that would fit into the palm of my hand. So I searched the sack in the pantry for a small orange because the small ones were the juiciest. Then I rolled the orange under my bare foot to make it soft. It took a long time and the point was to get the fruit to yield its juice and not to split. This had to be sensed entirely though the sole of the foot. My legs were brown and strong. I felt so powerful when I figured out how to use my strength on something as small as an orange. When it was ready I made a hole in the peel with my thumb and sucked out the sweet juice. This strange memory in turn reminded me of a line from a poem by Apollinaire. I had written down this line in the Polish notebook, twenty years ago: ‘The window opens like an orange.’
I did not know how to get the work, my writing, into the world. I did not know how to open the window like an orange. If anything, the window had closed like an axe on my tongue. If this was to be my reality, I did not know what to do with it.”