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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Orange Memories

January 8, 2020

There are many ways to sum up a person’s personality and character. Attaching labels to them is a shortcut, but probably the most frequently used. I am called a restaurateur, columnist, author, tour leader, and a few other choice— and sometimes unsavory— things. But of all of the titles or labels that might be assigned to me, “dad,” would be my favorite— and the most important.

One could also call me a breakfast guy. Seriously, the first meal of the day is so important to me that it has probably been one of the things that has defined me all of my life. I have never been one to skip breakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day, any time of the day.

My wife and daughter rarely eat breakfast. My son and I have always been the breakfast eaters in our family. He was an early riser for the first 16 years of his life and he and I would always go somewhere together and eat breakfast. No matter where we were in the world, we would always start our day together, sharing a meal.

In 2011, my wife, 14-year old daughter, and 10-year old son spent six months travelling all across Europe. We covered 17 countries in six months. My son and I ate breakfast every morning in each of the 72 cities we visited. That trip was so monumental in the life of our family that all things are measured as occurring before or after “the trip.” As memorable as that time with my family was, some of my most vivid recollections are not of monuments, museums, or scenery, but of the time my son and I shared over morning meals.

It’s not that I devalue the cultural elements of travelling overseas— to the contrary— it’s just that one-on-one time with a loved one over a meal sticks with me in a very visceral and permanent way.

I have written often about the week of breakfasts my son and I shared on the roof of the Royal Olympic Hotel in Athens, overlooking the temple of Zeus and the Parthenon. Those was memorable, but no more noteworthy than the breakfasts we shared in small bakeries in Italy and France, or at the local open-air market at dawn in Barcelona.

It’s always been that way. When I look back into my early childhood days, I have vivid memories of mornings in the breakfast room of my childhood home. Cereal was a daily thing. Sweet rolls were for special occasions. But there always seemed to be oranges in one form or another.

My kids probably have no idea what concentrated orange juice is and would be as puzzled looking at a frozen can of Minute Maid as they would an eight-track tape. But oranges were a large part of our daily lives back in the 1960s and 1970s.

My mother also sectioned oranges and served them for breakfast. I was talking to a friend about this last week, and it is something his family did, too.

My mother would take an orange, split it in half, use a small pairing knife to section the citrus, and then serve both halves on a small plate. The sugar bowl was always nearby, and I would sprinkle way more sugar on the orange that was required— probably removing any health benefits that might have been gained by eating an orange for breakfast in the first place.

In the Victorian Era they made spoons specifically for eating citrus in this manner. The tip or edge of the spoon was slightly serrated which allowed the spoon to easily remove any orange section that might still be clinging onto the orange. They were called grapefruit spoons. On Bellewood Drive we just used regular teaspoons.

My father died when I was six-years old. I have almost no memories of him, but I do remember bits and pieces of a few things. Most are hazy recollections stuck way back in the recessed corners of my cerebral hard drive, mainly a dozen or so bits and pieces of small little details here and there. One thing I do remember rather brightly is how he sprinkled sugar on his sectioned oranges. He would dip the sugar spoon in the sugar caddy and then— while holding the spoon a few inches above the fruit with one hand— would gently tap the spoon with the index finger of his free hand, allowing for an even distribution of the sugar onto the orange.

In my mind’s eye I can see my father doing that and then trying it myself. I think my mother noticed me doing it and commented that I was doing it “just like your daddy.” That would be my very first breakfast memory. It’s a good one.

Every once in a while, I catch my son doing a thing that he obviously picked up from me and it makes me think of that moment with my dad and the orange.

Once all of the orange sections were eaten, the orange could then be squeezed into the spoon (or, more often, directly into my mouth) for the perfect fresh orange juice. Though, in those days, mine was much sweeter than the juice that my mother was making from concentrate due to the considerable amounts of sugar I applied early in the process.

My mother ate oranges this way, but she ate grapefruits more often. My paternal grandmother ate an orange or grapefruit in this manner every day. That was her morning staple. A cup of coffee, a sectioned orange or grapefruit, wheat toast made in the small toaster oven she kept near her chair in the breakfast room, and the Times Picayune and Clarion Ledger newspapers. She made pancakes for my brother and me, but her breakfast was always the same.

I wonder if my kids will look back on the early breakfasts we shared. Will my daughter remember that as a young child she woke up early, and how we used to walk several blocks to eat pancakes early on Saturday mornings? Will she remember the nickname the waitress gave her? Will my son remember our breakfasts in bakeries and cafes all over Europe and the United States? I wonder if my children will eat breakfast with their children like my parents and grandparents did with me?

Spending time together with family and sharing a meal is one of life’s greatest joys. When that meal is the one that begins the day when everything is new, there is a clean slate, and nothing but possibilities lie ahead, it makes that time spent even more joyful.

This week’s recipe: Garlic Cheese Grits

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