If you can eat just one clementine orange at a time—especially during the months where the dark sets in around 4:29 p.m.—you are made of different stuff than me. I lose all sense of propriety and restraint during clementine season, just peel and cram them into my gaping citrus hole like so many Tic-Tacs, if the very image of Tic-Tacs hadn’t been ruined in the course of this blighted year. I can eat three, six, nine in a sitting and still wonder later why my hands smell like sunshine. Then I see the peels, heaped on tables, ledges, and chair arms, still in place where they were cast. I’m an animal. I’m OK with that.
Oh! Clementines! I didn’t properly know what they were until about 18 years ago when a man I was dating asked if he could stop off at a bodega on our way to a party to pick of a crate of them to bring as a gift for the host. Huh? I’d always been pleased to get an orange or two in my stocking on St. Nicholas Day or Christmas, but this was just weird to me. No, he said—it’s a thing. That night, when our host ooohed, aaaahed, and offered, it became my thing.
Clementines are small, self-contained blasts of if not extreme joy, then at least reliable OK-ness. Not OK in the “meh” way, but a reassurance that everything is fine for the moment. Even though citrus is at its peak from late fall through mid-winter, something in clementines speaks to me of sunshine and eternal summer. Their origins are a matter of some dispute, with some citrus historians saying that a priest named Clement Rodier bred the mandarin hybrid by accident in the garden of his Algerian orphanage in 1902, and others maintaining that they emerged in China several centuries before. H. S. Fawcett of the Citrus Research Center, Riverside introduced the oranges into the United States in 1909 and brought them to California from Florida in 1914. I don’t much care where or when they came about. I’m just almost ridiculously cheered when I see them start to stack up in the entryway of my local grocery store right around when the temperature drop starts to chap at my soul.
California and various countries in Europe and North Africa (mainly Spain and Morocco) start shipping out the bulk of their crates of clementines in late fall through mid-winter. Even though they’re for sale in many grocery stores year-round, it’s certainly worth your while to show some restraint. In peak season, the best clementines are easy-peeling, aromatic as hell, sweet, and bursting with juices. Try one before Daylight Saving Time sets in or much past Groundhog Day, and they’re just a mean, dusty tease.
But you should bring some to any holiday parties you attend—for eating on the spot, squeezing into cocktails, or simply giving your host a little edible sunshine to tuck into later when the candles have dimmed and the guests have gone. It might seem like a small, silly thing, but they’ll think of you and light up with every bite.