About this time of year, Mandarin oranges become available in Canadian grocery stores. Fall ends. Winter takes hold. And boxes of these cheery imports beckon to shoppers who long to brighten cold, grey days.
Historical Mandarin Oranges – Canadian Beginnings
Mandarin oranges were first introduced to Canada in the late 1800s by way of Japanese immigrants. A CBC radio interview with a representative from the Oppenheimer Group (a produce and provisions company based in British Columbia since 1858) reveals that the fruit was first imported in 1891 to provide Japanese workers with a taste of their original home. The B.C. Agriculture in the Classroom website suggests that gift-baskets of the fruit were initially sent to Japanese immigrants by family members, as a way to celebrate the New Year (“Mandarin Oranges”).
Once the taste for Mandarin oranges was introduced, there was no turning back! The delectable fruit quickly became a popular commercial import. Shipped across the Pacific Ocean to the Port of Vancouver, the oranges then travelled east across Canada on “‘Orange Trains’ – trains with boxcars painted orange – [that] alerted everyone along the way that the irresistible oranges from Japan were back again for the holidays” (“Mandarin Oranges”). As the CBC interview suggests, this fruit’s festive associations are uniquely Canadian because many American states restrict the importing of citrus fruits.
Literary Mandarin Oranges – Canadian Poetry
If Mandarin oranges made an impression on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canadian consumers, then the fruit similarly tantalized our writers.
The transformative effect of this wintertime treat is captured by the Canadian modernist poet Louise Morey Bowman (1882-1944). In terms of Turning Point Meals, her poem “Oranges” takes a broad view, reflecting societal changes in a modernizing world.
“Oranges” appears in Bowman’s second book of poetry, Dream Tapestries (1924), for which she was awarded the Prix David in Quebec. You can learn more about Bowman and read this poem and others in their entirety through Canadian Poetry’s website.
In the poem, Bowman describes an austere, seemingly lifeless New England village during the colourless month of November. Examining Bowman’s career, Wanda Campbell notes that the New England setting featured in “Oranges” can be readily explained by a series of factors: Bowman originally submitted her poem to a contest in the United States; she had once studied in Massachusetts; and her grandmother was a Puritan (82). While the American influences are clear, Campbell adds that the circumstances depicted in “Oranges” could easily “[resemble] turn-of-the-century Canada” (82) with its restraining social mores and rigid piety.
In “Oranges”, the New England townspeople faithfully sing hymns about mortality. Death, itself, even occupies the stark streets and porches. All is staid and lacklustre until the village store beckons with its “different air” (46, emphasis added).
The storekeeper is known as “a man of vision and breadth of mind” (96), and his wares include coffee beans, spices, cones of sugar, coarse salt, fabrics, and ORANGES:
Great balls of golden wonder . . . round, perishable globes . . .
Here a ripe pyramid most carefully laid
[. . .]
Plain comfortable sight . . . proof against sharp frost bite
Of the Northern Winters.
See how the oranges have caught up all the light!
What joyous tones they hold (113-120)
This aromatic pyramid achieves so much more than simply warding off winter. These oranges are veritable “globes” — offering the conservative community a sense of another world. The burning “tones” bring a change both in hue and in timbre, as the villagers’ morose hymns give way to the new.
During the late 1800s depicted in Bowman’s poem, Mandarin oranges were undeniably transformative, a turning point for the villagers. One could argue that this fruit has continued to mesmerize Canada’s literary foodscape.
Transport yourself forward in time to the 1960s. Savour a cup of tea served with oranges that have been shipped all the way from China. One cannot help but hear the magical voice of Montreal’s Leonard Cohen in his famous song “Suzanne” and see his muse dancing along the St. Lawrence River.
So, the next time you purchase a box of Mandarins, relish them—section by section, poem by poem.
These lyrical oranges are bound to delight.
Canadian Literary Fare
Bowman, Louise Morey. “Oranges.” Canadian Poetry Canadian Poetry Press. Web. Nov. 22, 2015. <http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/hidden_rooms/louise_morey_bowman.htm>
Campbell, Wanda. “Moonlight and Morning: Women’s Early Contribution to Canadian Modernism.” The Canadian Modernists Meet. Ed. Dean Irvine. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2005. 79-99. Print.
“Mandarin Oranges.” BC Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation. ActNowBC.ca Web. Nov. 22, 2015. <http://www.aitc.ca/bc/uploads/sfvnp/MANDARIN%20ORANGES%206.pdf>
Text and Photo Credits: Shelley Boyd