Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review: Squeezed,
the orange juice book

Alissa Hamilton, Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. $30.

                              A gown made of the finest wool,
                              Which from our pretty lambs we pull

Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" presents a pastoral dream, a world in which labor is non-existent or non-laborious, in which the line between nature and material culture has been dissolved. In the lines above, lambs turn into wool turns into gown as by magic. To adapt the lingo of the orange juice industry, the gown is "fresh-pulled."

Orange juice too is a pastoral dream. As Alissa Hamilton notes, the American imagination regards orange juice as purity and simplicity. Think of the Tropicana carton, with drinking straw stuck in fruit. Or Simply Orange, as one brand name proclaims. Hamilton's purpose in writing Squeezed is to make us see orange juice anew: "to make you look at [it] differently and begin to see through the opaque packages of food that surround you."

Florida orange juice began in the early twentieth century, with an effort to increase citrus sales via the promotion of household juice extractors. Canned orange juice, developed in the 1930s, disappointed: the heat of pasteurization damaged flavor. The breakthrough in processed juice came in 1948, with Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice (FCOJ), the "Cinderella Product," as it was called, which brought far greater returns to growers than fresh fruit or canned juice. And then came flash pasteurization, which led to the rise of Not From Concentrate juice (NFC).

Processed juice, as Hamilton tells the story, is hardly pure and simple. The story has at its core six months of Food and Drug Administration hearings (1961) that sought to establish standards of identity for orange-juice products. The hearings turned on strange, almost philosophical questions. Does freezing alter the identity of juice? Is "chilled" an appropriate description of pasteurized juice? Is orange juice defined by chemical composition or by the process of its making? The standards of identity that emerged from the hearings resulted in ingredient lists that imparted minimal information to the consumer, conceived as an archetypal homemaker who did not care about and would only be confused by the complexities of food processing.

NFC, which dominates juice sales and is most associated with all that's pure and simple, is indeed a processed product. Its story involves chemistry, globalization, and questions of land use. Oranges undergo what the industry calls "hard extraction" (not a gentle squeeze). Extracted juice is vacuum-stripped of oxygen, de-oiled, and held in massive tanks (holding as much as 1.5 million gallons), sometimes for more than a year, before being made palatable via a "flavor pack," a proprietary blend of orange essence and orange oil, themselves composed of hundreds of chemicals. (Ethyl butyrate is the one that most pleases North American palates.) The flavor pack is water-soluble, which means that some water goes in with it. But it's still Florida orange juice, right? Not really: as Florida growers lose land to real-estate developers, more and more oranges and essence and oil come from Brazil, where land and labor are cheaper and environmental regulation minimal.

Hamilton points out that not even people in the juice business can distinguish NFC from FCOJ. The alleged simplicity and superiority of NFC are in essence (and oil) fictions of advertising. Still, NFC is not cigarettes, and Hamilton is not suggesting that NFC is hazardous to health. Her argument rather is that a consumer's right to know how foods are produced must extend beyond matters of health risks (as with halal, kosher, and organic foods):

Unless we as consumers are provided with factual information, we cannot accurately assess what and what not to worry about. We cannot properly rank our priorities. We cannot make meaningful choices regarding the massive number of industrial products on the market.
Squeezed could use more careful editing ("There ends the parallels," remonstrate confused with rebuke), and the book could be enlivened with more visual materials. Its photographs of orange-juice people and places seem oddly remote, like items in a decades-old textbook. It'd be nice to see photographs of NFC cartons, with their minimal ingredient lists and their attempts to make the word pasteurized nearly invisible. Perhaps Hamilton prefers that the reader look at these cartons on supermarket shelves, and then start looking at other packaging with the same attention.

Pre-Squeezed, my knowledge of orange juice would have fit nicely in a five-ounce glass, one already filled with juice and set beside my morning tea. In other words, I knew next to nothing. Reading Squeezed has opened my eyes. I've been kicked out of the garden — of the Florida Sunshine Tree, that is — and into a state of knowledge.

[Thanks to Yale University Press for a review copy of this book.]

comments: 6

Your Daughter Rachel said...

As someone who LOATHES orange juice, I think I'll stay away from this one. But interesting review and post!

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Rachel. Would you like a cup of tea?

JuliaR said...

I heard the author being interviewed on CBC last week! So she is getting around. I wouldn't have known about this except for your earlier blog post, so thanks.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, the book was just published. According to this bio, Alissa Hamilton lives in Toronto.

Slywy said...

At Medici, you get oranges and directed to the manual juicer (or you used to—haven't been to brunch in a while). The difference is palpable (palatable)?

Michael Leddy said...

Ah, Hyde Park. : )