The Foods We Give /

O Cit­rus Tree

SAVEUR - - Contents - By Jes­sica B. Har­ris Illustrations by LAUREN MONACO

Three cook­ing projects to spread hol­i­day cheer

In Cre­ole New Or­leans, the hol­i­days come with rum and clemen­tines

Af­ter many decades spent trav­el­ing in the Caribbean around the hol­i­days, I can now un­der­stand the sub­tle signs that Christ­mas is com­ing. In Ja­maica and Puerto Rico, it’s the ap­pear­ance of fresh pi­geon peas at the mar­ket. In Guade­loupe, the sounds of pork be­ing hacked on wooden ta­bles por­tend the roasts be­ing prepared for the hol­i­day meal. For me though, the hol­i­day is not seen through crispy pork crack­lings and peas and rice; rather it has a yel­lowyor­ange hue, the col­ors of cit­rus, be­cause while I’ve adopted many of the tra­di­tions of my Caribbean friends, it’s my home in New Or­leans that re­mains the lo­cus of my Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tions.

There, I know the hol­i­day sea­son is upon us when I round the cor­ner to my house and see my neigh­bor’s lemon tree over­flow­ing with fruit, so abun­dant that they’ve be­gun to fall to the ground. Out my back door, the grape­fruits hang from one tree in round globes, the Meyer le­mons are plump and ready to pick, and the kumquats are dot­ting their tree like so many hol­i­day dec­o­ra­tions.

My gar­den is filled with cit­rus be­cause I was told early on in my New Or­leans ex­pe­ri­ence that old Cre­ole fam­i­lies used to dec­o­rate their hol­i­day ta­bles with small pot­ted wax myr­tle or cit­rus trees. The hol­i­day trees were adorned with small pa­per cones filled with candies, blown glass or­na­ments, and thin tal­low can­dles wired to the branches. This tra­di­tion goes back to the days when the French-speak­ing Cre­ole world of the Vieux Carré (com­monly known as the French Quar­ter) and its faubourgs was still very cul­tur­ally sep­a­rate from the An­glo world of the grow­ing city, and to the days be­fore ev­er­green Christ­mas trees be­came fash­ion­able via Queen Vic­to­ria’s Teu­tonic ex­am­ple.

I em­braced the tra­di­tion with my usual ex­u­ber­ance, each year pur­chas­ing an­other type of live cit­rus tree: or­ange, Meyer lemon, kumquat, grape­fruit, makrut lime. Af­ter the hol­i­day is over, the trees re­tire to the back­yard to be planted and I anx­iously await their fruit­ing. One year, when the or­anges were plen­ti­ful and the sweet, round kumquats re­quired culling so as not to get out

of hand, I spied a bot­tle of fla­vored French Caribbean rum la­beled cre­ole shrubb for sale in the lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. It took me back to my is­land Christ­mases, and I re­mem­bered the tra­di­tion of one of my fa­vorite hol­i­day spots: Guade­loupe.

The Caribbean re­gion is home to a va­ri­ety of homemade bev­er­ages that are es­sen­tial for proper year-end cel­e­bra­tions. In the His­panic Caribbean there are the al­co­holic milk punches like co­quito; in the English-speak­ing West Indies, no one would set a drinks ta­ble with­out a de­can­ter of freshly prepared sor­rel; and in French-speak­ing Guade­loupe and Mar­tinique, Cre­ole shrubb is the con­coc­tion re­quired dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son. This is not the vine­gar-based colo­nial re­fresher that has come back into fashion re­cently, but rather a con­join­ing of cit­rus and rum that is con­sid­ered a ta­ble es­sen­tial.

This French is­land tra­di­tion iron­i­cally might have ar­rived in the Caribbean from the Cres­cent City it­self: Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal leg­end, the idea of mak­ing a shrubb was brought from New Or­leans in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury by a rum dis­tiller in the now-vol­cano-de­stroyed city of Saint Pierre, Mar­tinique. The idea of rum and cit­rus, though, goes fur­ther back. Père La­bat, the Do­mini­can monk to whom we owe much of our knowl­edge of life in the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th cen­turies, re­ported that the enslaved Africans mixed lo­cal le­mons with skim­mings from sugar pro­cess­ing into a drink they called La Grappe. Al­though there are many recipes for

shrubb, my peri­patetic life has kept me from mak­ing it in the traditional man­ner, which in­volves sun-dry­ing cit­rus peels and a lengthy mac­er­a­tion. I have cre­ated my own vari­a­tion us­ing some of the fruit from my Louisiana trees and lo­cal rum made from the sug­ar­cane that cul­tur­ally con­nects New Or­leans with the French Caribbean. The recipe is sim­ple:

Rhum agri­cole, a caramel-y rum dis­tilled from sug­ar­cane juice rather than mo­lasses, is com­bined with the peels of bright, sweet cit­rus fruits, usu­ally clemen­tines. Then vanilla, cin­na­mon, and cane sugar are added. It only be­gins there, how­ever; there are as many vari­a­tions as there are grand­moth­ers in the Caribbean, each with its own spe­cial fil­lip. Some add a few cloves, oth­ers fresh nut­meg, and still oth­ers a bit of prune liqueur. I’m still working on mine.

I al­low it to ma­ture for a few weeks in an iced-tea crock like the ones I’ve seen used for in­fus­ing rums in a moun­tain re­treat in Guade­loupe, then pour it into a cut crys­tal de­can­ter and place it proudly on a sil­ver tray on my hol­i­day bar, join­ing the limon­cello and sat­suma-cello that my New Or­leans friends make and gift. Then, ei­ther af­ter a meal, or when guests come to visit and pick up their gifts from un­der the year’s new cit­rus tree, I pour it into an­tique cor­dial glasses, a present from my fa­ther on a Christ­mas long, long past, and sip it slowly, mar­veling at how some­times in my life the past re­ally is pro­logue.

part of my daily rou­tine. I feed it to my son, who calls it “daddy bread.” It’s the most grat­i­fy­ingly cave­man thing I do.

This will be the year I stop buy­ing gift cards for friends. In­stead, I will pack­age my sour­dough starter in a jar and at­tach ex­plicit in­struc­tions on how to care for it. It will be the cheap­est but most mean­ing­ful present I can ever give. For some, to have such great re­spon­si­bil­ity foisted upon them will be as ter­ri­ble a gift as a gold­fish to a 10-year-old. They may hu­mor the process for a few days be­fore dump­ing it in the trash. And I’d be fine with that. I just need one per­son to buy in so the lin­eage con­tin­ues. Be­cause what is dis­carded wet dough for some is a liv­ing, breath­ing won­der for oth­ers. I hope they see it as I do: That I’m send­ing this small clump of life into the world.

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