An autumn gift of summer sun

Around October, Mama started saving orange peels. In our family, we each consumed a full glass of orange juice every morning, squeezed in an old-fashioned metal hand press by our mother. Back in those days, a big bag of oranges could be bought for a dime. Considering that our entire family was fed, and fed well, on one dollar per day, thanks to Mama's superb but frugal meal planning, 10 cents for our breakfast fruit seemed a reasonable allotment.

Our school days began with a call from the foot of the staircase, "Come get your orange juice, children!" Whereupon I would put aside the book I was reading while getting dressed, and race downstairs.

Those of us who didn't drink our juice immediately after it was squeezed ran the risk of having the vitamins escape into the air, according to our mother. "And then you won't get the full benefit," she said. Mama was from Kentucky, where no oranges grew, and to her, the bounty of golden fruit to be found in California was nothing short of a miracle.

In Glendale, Calif., in 1930, our house was surrounded by groves of oranges, lemons, and olives. We had six lemon trees in our backyard, and one olive tree, but, alas, no orange tree. Never mind, we were able to buy huge sacks of the perfect, sweet, juicy fruit at any market.

Now that fall was upon us, it was time to think about sharing our bounty with our loved ones back East. Every day, after we children left for school, Mama would put the squeezed peels in the icebox to keep until she had collected a large enough batch to proceed to the next step.

Then, one afternoon we would arrive home to the tart, citrusy aroma of orange rinds simmering gently on our old stove.

"Wash your hands, girls," Mama would call out. "We're going to start on our orange candy."

The softened peels were scooped up, rinsed in cold water, and laid out on our long sink. My sister Jean, Mama, and I carefully removed the pulp and some of the white part with sharp spoons - in order not to tear the perfect golden cups.

Next, with our oldest scissors, we cut the skins into thin strips. Meanwhile, Mama would put the syrup to boil, using her tried-and-true recipe of one cup of sugar to one-half cup of water, and two tablespoons of corn syrup. In went the peel to cook until the liquid was clear. By now our mouths were watering, and our brothers were hanging around, begging for "just a teeny taste."

"Not yet, children," Mama would say, scooping the candies out with a slotted spoon onto a large platter. "You'll burn your tongues. Wait until this has cooled, and then you may have just one piece."

Once cooled, the candied peels were dusted over with granulated sugar, which Mama applied lightly with her flour sifter. Now it was time for our tastes. Of course, we looked for the longest and widest pieces. How delicious that first bite was! Those tiny acid pings against the taste buds combined with the sugary sweetness.

Although the cooking process was complete, we were not yet finished with our gift candy. Mama had assembled various empty candy boxes and small shoeboxes. Those from our little brothers' shoes were perfect for shipping gift sweets to relatives back East. The candied peels were layered into them between sheets of crumpled waxed paper.

The final step, which took place about 10 days before Christmas, was our father's. The candy boxes were put into larger cardboard boxes with other Christmas gifts, padded with torn newspapers. Daddy was considered to be the only one in our family with the expertise and strength to wrap the big boxes in the stiff, heavy brown paper, and to tie them securely with rough hairy cord.

All of this was accomplished without the use of any of the sticky tapes that were invented many years later. We children watched the entire process with great interest. At last he addressed the packages with a large black crayon.

"There," he'd say, with a sigh of satisfaction. "I'll mail them off tomorrow, on my way to work."

As we opened our presents from back East on Christmas morning, exclaiming over them with excitement, I thought of Grandpa and the aunts, uncles, and cousins who probably were sharing their first tastes of California's sweetness at that very moment.

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