Where do oranges and peanuts come from?

Snow in Valencia, Jan 2 2011

Eliot Weinberger, Oranges & Peanuts for Sale (New Directions Paperbook)

Oranges & peanuts for sale


Oranges come from Asia, but no one knows exactly where. The Chinese mention them in their earliest writings; the word is Sanskrit: naranga. Some say they were grown in Mesopotamia; some say the Egyptians ate them; some say there are oranges in the Bible, but some say those are not oranges at all. The Romans got them from the Persians, and built the first greenhouses with sheets of mica to protect them: “orangeries.” Jupiter gave Juno an orange on their wedding day, as a symbol of eternal love, but oranges died out in most of the Mediterranean with the fall of the Empire. The Moors kept them cultivated in Spain; the Crusaders brought them back to Italy. Columbus carried orange seeds with him on his second voyage. The Portuguese took them to Brazil; not many years later, no one knows why, the first Western travelers deep in the interior reported seeing wild orange trees growing. Bernal Díaz del Castillo himself planted the first orange seeds in Mexico, in Tonalá, in the week of 12–20 July, 1518. The orange is not a fruit but a berry; I don’t know why. La mar no tiene naranjas, the sea has no oranges.

The peanut is not a nut but a legume. It came from Brazil, or it came from Peru, or it came from Brazil to Peru, or it came from the Guarani region of Paraguay and Bolivia to Brazil and Peru; no one knows. The Spanish brought it to the Caribbean, where the Arawaks called it “mani”; then they brought it from the Caribbean to Mexico, where the Aztecs called it “cacahuete”; both words are still used in Spanish. The Portuguese brought it to Africa, where it was called “nguba”; the slaves brought it to the American South, where it was called “goober” or, as in the song, “goober pea.” The Spanish brought it to the Philippines, and it spread to China, where it was called the “foreign bean.” The Chinese brought it to Japan, where it was called the “Chinese bean.” Someone, no one knows who, brought it from Africa to India, where it was called the “Mozambique bean.” In the gold rush of the 1870s, the Chinese brought it to Austra lia, where, a few decades later, Anton Bruehl was born. The idiosyncratic American delight peanut butter was invented by a physician in St. Louis in the 1890s, but no one knows his name.

During the Second World War, it became difficult for Brazil to export oranges. The groves were neglected, and nearly every orange tree in the country, some 40 million of them, died from a disease no one had known before, which they called La Tristeza. La naranja es la tristeza, the orange is sadness.

La naranja es la tristeza del azahar profanado, the orange is the sadness of its violated blossom, pues se torna fuego y oro lo que antes fue puro y blanco, for what was once pure and white turns fire and gold. In England and Sicily, it was the symbol of the victim’s heart; you pinned the name to an orange and hid it in the chimney until the person died. The peanut has never been a symbol of anything, though some African tribes believed it was one of the few plants to possess a soul.

The peanut is mysterious. It is small, with leaves on the top and flowers on the bottom. The flowers pollinate themselves, lose their petals, and then the ovaries enlarge, grow away from the plant, turn into long stems that burrow into the earth and form peanuts at their tips. The peanut is the only common plant that forms its fruit underground. It is a metaphor for something, but I don’t know what. García Lorca never mentioned a peanut.

An orange is green, and turns orange only when the weather cools. The color is named after the fruit; the fruit is not named after the color.

The botanist George Washington Carver, who devoted his life to the domestication of peanuts, once had a dream. God appeared to him and said, “Ask me anything.” “Tell me everything there is to know about the universe.” And God replied, “Your mind is too small to comprehend the universe.” So Carver said, “Then tell me everything there is to know about the peanut.”

La luna llorando dice: Yo quiero ser una naranja. The moon weeping says, I want to be an orange. The astronaut Allen B. Shepard took a peanut to the moon.