by Sarah Phillips, CEO and founder, Ugly Produce is Beautiful
When I was growing up in Southern California over 50 years ago, we called these navel oranges, and they looked just like the ones in the photo - a bit bruised, with surface flaws.
We picked them from our backyard trees and bought them from roadside trucks. I remember the numerous navel orange groves (now long gone) in Orange County, CA, hence its name. They we so juicy and fragrant.
I was happy to see these on my recent trip to the California farmers' market, while on vacation from the East Coast where I now live, and to be able to eat my favorite "old friends" again. They were actually labelled Heirloom Navel Oranges. I had to take a double-take when I read the sign. I knew immediately that the ones I buy today must have been "improved upon" in my lifetime for these to be called heirlooms. I now know that for something to be called an heirloom variety, that it is original, old, and unique; that the common varieties we see at the marketplace today, have been bred over my lifetime in order to produce more uniform fruit, more productively, and faster without considering flavor, which is the normal agribusiness industry practice today.
The heirloom navel is the original or “old line” Washington Navel that got the California’s citrus industry booming. Heirloom navels are grown using certain farming practices. The grower gives special attention to the soil, just like it was done since navels were introduced to America from Brazil in the 1800s. It reportedly isn't common practice anymore for navels that are sold in the grocery stores, and hence, the original great flavor has been lost.
Unlike the navel you are used to, heirlooms aren’t in stores year around. They typically will find them in stores from December into late April/early May with the peak being in the winter months. A couple of growers you can still purchase them from are Ripe to You and Cecelia Packing.
There was nothing like my eating these now called navel orange heirloom varieties, again! It brought tears to my eyes and pure joy to my senses, when I bit into my precious prize. Juice was dripping down my arms as I ate it, and I found orange remnants of peel under my fingernails from having to struggle with peeling it. The flavor was outstanding.
I was having a real old-fashioned heirloom produce experience; something that my children and their children may never experience. What is natural fruit to me is not the same authentic experience that they hold in their memories. They get the repeated messages that perfect and abundant, year-round and always available food is more important than flavor. How sad. There's nothing special for them (and us) to look forward to because produce has become seasonless.
As children, my mother always put a navel orange in our stocking at Christmas. I never understood why she did that. Now I finally do.
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