When I was living in Florida—a sentence I have a hard time believing even as I write it—I got in the habit doing this thing where I would squint and try to imagine what the place looked like before. Before all the strip malls and the Sports Authorities, the house farms, the white cars and the Long Island accents pushing their way into bagel shops driving badly, eyes under the steering wheel, down AIA. I would do everything I could to let myself see only the Spanish architecture and the palm trees and the dappled light and the stone crabs and the key limes and the tropical paradise where grapefruits made their way into the New World, a warm, wonderful place that must have seemed like something of a miracle to North Easterners. These days I find myself doing the same thing in Southern California, too. I try to imagine the Cahuenga pass when it was a mountain pass, going from the Hollywood Hills, an enclave of weekend hunting lodges, into the vast expanse of farmland that was the San Fernando Valley. I try to see orange groves and avocado orchards and pioneers striking westward in search of some unnameable dream. For some reason, this pick-up truck, which I spotted on a drive to San Diego not long ago, reminded me of these old times, that the arid land between here and my hometown was once a county of orange groves and daring dreams, not just republicans and silicone cliches.
Whenever I have an abundance of oranges, I make the same thing: Aunt Jeanette’s Orange Bread. My favorite aunt used to make it every year on Thanksgiving morning at her home in Montecito, which as far as I was concerned was the only place to be on that day of the year. We kids would wake up to the smell of this bread baking and the sound of Aunt Jeanette busy in the kitchen, where she would be for the rest of the day making a feast whose memory to this day I can only try to immitate. Now with her and Uncle Tom gone, we kids still manage to get ourselves together on holidays, though now that holiday usually Easter. We do our best with lamb cooked on the outdoor grill and vegetables pulled from my cousin’s Ojai garden—not to mention an Easter Egg hunt that is the stuff of unattainable magazine spreads—but we still haven’t mastered the easy, relaxed style we learned, and learned to love, from Aunt Jeanette. Or at least the way we remember it, which just may be the secret to a happy childhood.
Aunt Jeanette’s Orange Bread
Yield: 1 9-inch-by-3-inch loaf
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup boiling water
3 tablespoons orange zest
1/3 cup orange juice
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
baking soda, baking powder, salt and cloves. In large bowl, melt butter
in boiling water. Add orange zest and juice, sugar, vanilla and egg,
stirring to combine. Add dry ingredients gradually, mixing with wooden
spoon until ingredients are combined, being careful not to overmix. Add
Place dough into well-greased 9-by-3-inch loaf pan.
Bake at 350 degrees until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean,
about 50 minutes. If loaf is browning too quickly, cover loosely with
foil. Best served warm with softened butter or cream cheese.