What The Dickens
Posted on April 19th, 2012
It’s easy to tell that a tangelo is a hybrid of the tangerine and a pomelo. Like Brangelina, the title itself is sufficiently descriptive. What you may not know is that many of the ordinary varieties of citrus that we know, love, and slice up for breakfast are also hybrids — the unlikely kin of disparate citrus varieties.
The common grapefruit, it turns out, is actually the bastard child of a pomelo and a sweet orange. The versatile lemon? That’s (at least according to some recent studies) the result of the union of a sour orange and a citron. Even a regular old orange can trace its lineage to a pomelo and a mandarin — they think. Scientists are still a little fuzzy on the genetics of some of the more ancient hybrids.
(Cue comedic record scratch sound) What, what? Citrus parentage is still a work in progress? This fact alone gives the indignant guys on Maury Povich an eensy bit of credibility. I mean, if they can’t figure out an orange, can they really know with 99.9% accuracy that some guy is (or isn’t) the father?
Even in the sordid, cross-bred citrus family one fruit stands alone. Born as the result of a three-way between a grapefruit, an orange, and a tangerine, the Ugli fruit is a large tangy/sweet fruit native to Jamaica, where the locals pronounce it “Hoogli.” I know, I know — natural plant hybridization is more like a complicated genetic thing involving non-sexy terms like apomixis and ebryony. But I like my description better.
Like star fruit and kiwis before them, you can find Ugli fruits in the section for “unique items for white people dinner parties” in upwardly mobile supermarkets nationwide. Ugli isn’t just a silly name; lumpy, and with mottled greenish skin, this snack has an outward appearance that only a mother could love. That is, a mother who is particularly fond of half-rotted grapefruit.
Interestingly, the Ugli fruit is sometimes marketed under the name “Uniq fruit.” I know deep down that it’s probably just a sales gimmick, but I like to imagine that Ugli adopted the name while away at film school, along with a vintage tweed jacket, horn-rimmed glasses, and a dogeared copy of Camus’ The Stranger. Try as he might to get it to stick back home, we all know it’s not what gets yelled around the dinner table come Thanksgiving.
Maybe it’s all the Masterpiece Classics I’ve been watching, but the plight of the poor, misunderstood Ugli fruit reminds me of another (albeit more celebrated) misfit: Charles Dickens.
Like little Ugli, Charles Dickens was “Uniq” — the unlikely product of a dysfunctional, imperfect family. At just twelve years old, Dickens was sent by his parents to work in a shoe polish factory. “It is wonderful to me,” he later said diplomatically, “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.” From there it got even worse. His father’s gross overspending led to a stint in a debtor’s prison, with no one but Charles (who was, by most accounts, a nerdy bookish type) left to provide for the rest of the family. Even after the family climbed out of debt, Dickens’ peach of a mother fought to keep him at his terrible factory job (she eventually relented, but he never forgave her).
Fortunately for readers everywhere, Dickens understood the deep, deep well of inspiration that springs from an unhappy childhood. Out of his early alienation came a lifetime’s worth of raw material, replete with the vivid memories of poverty and strife that informed much of his literary work. The debtor’s prison that surrounded his father became the backdrop for Little Dorrit, and the factory work he loathed formed the basis for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. I could make a bad citrus joke about turning lemons into lemonade, but instead I’ll stick with the established truth that great art often comes from suffering.
Perhaps there’s hope for little Ugli yet.
3 Ugli fruits sit on my kitchen counter looking, as they do, like a putrefying Cezanne painting. I juice them, discarding their lumpy, imperfect exteriors. What is left is a perfect, pinkish nectar — a juice of great expectations.
And I drink it, marvelling at all it’s become.