Here in the cold, dark, horrible nub end months of the year, I jam clementines into my mouth like it's my job. Two, four, six at a sitting, I'll dig the edge of my least-ragged nail into the rind and claw away the loose skin to reveal the dewy, seedless segments inside. Rinds pile up in pungent heaps on every flat surface around me - exoskeletons shed by sweet-blooded alien insects that have come to Earth to lift me from my seasonal funk.
I'd stop and take them to a trash bin, but that would mean precious seconds not spent stuffing oranges into my face in the manner of a crazed bonobo. I will set upon a cheap, plywood crate or red net sack full of clementines and dispatch quarters, thirds, halves at a time until there is nothing left but a fine mist of citrus oil coating all nearby surfaces like a cheery arterial spray.
I am certain it is horrifying to watch, and it is in the best interest of all my personal and professional relationships that these little fruits are only available for a brief period each winter.
These "clementine" oranges are named for Father Clement Rodier, who some say accidentally bred the mandarin hybrid in the garden of his Algerian orphanage in 1902. Others maintain that they emerged in China a goodly chunk of time before that.
According to the late citrus scholar Robert Willard Hodgson, clementines were then introduced into the United States in 1909 and brought to California from Florida in 1914 by H. S. Fawcett of the Citrus Research Center, Riverside. He noted also that the 1914-15 catalogue of the Fancher Creek Nurseries of Fresno, California, mentioned "a new early mandarin from Algeria which later proved to be indistinguishable from clementine."
They could have developed in an opulent palazzo, outer space, or an outhouse for all I care. What matters to me is that California and various countries in Europe (especially Spain) and North Africa (notably Morocco) start shipping out crates of these sweet, easy-peeling oranges in perfect coincidence with my annual descent into winter blues, and I could not be more grateful.
Yes, technically they're available in many grocery stores year 'round, but that's just a cruel tease. Try biting into a clem before roughly the onset of Daylight Saving Time, and you'll end up with a puss full of pucker. Peel one around Valentine's Day and you might as well be gnawing into the carton in which it came. Flavor-wise it's a waiting game, and it's worth it - both for its sweet burst of liquid sunshine, and for what that does to my psyche.
Empirically, I know that citrus is at its peak in the late fall and into winter, but the Sunkist marketing of my youth seems to have burned beach volleyball, blue skies and eternal summer into the same brain cells as those containing all my memories of eating and drinking oranges. I can live with that, so long as the act of peeling open a clementine (ideally in one piece - it's a snack and a game all in one!) offers me a brief respite from being plunged into grey gloom at four o'clock in the afternoon.
Or it could be the Vitamin C which veritably drips from clementines, and is thought to help lift depression (not to mention scurvy, dysentery, boil-producing skin infections and other dread pirate diseases). Mostly, I just know that somehow, it works - that with each fragrant rind piled up on the table, I'm peeling away the darkness and letting a little sun splash in.