When I was in graduate school I had a friend from Indonesia named Sri. She was short and plump and cherubic. She told me amazing stories of how her Chinese great-grandmother was sold off to pay an opium debt. Her family dynamic required that her brother was required to take care of her until she married; her insistence on not getting married but instead coming to America to get her master's degree focusing on African American jazz and literature fascinated me.
Although she never cooked for me, she taught me a few things about food. The first thing was about the rooster emblazoned hot sauce, sriracha - which she would liberally squirt all over her lettuce and call it a salad. I use it still, on rice and grilled vegetables and am always surprised at how a little is so hot.
The second and most important thing I learned from her was how to peel and enjoy citrus. Living in Florida most of my life, I definitely took citrus for granted. We rarely had fresh citrus, maybe some oranges that we would cut into wedges and suck the juice out of while spitting out the seeds. My friends and I would steal oranges from the surrounding groves, but they were juice oranges so nearly impossible to peel. Once in a while, we might get some tangerines which were so easy to peel they felt like magic. And of course, we drank plenty of pasteurized OJ from a carton.
Sri loved citrus and would bring an orange or grapefruit to class nearly every day. Before class began she would slowly peel it and the whole, dingy concrete shell we were sitting in would brighten and smell fresh and crisp. You could see the oils squirting from the peels as she unwrapped the fruit.
She would always offer me a segment as I stared at her, astonished that she would undertake such a messy, sticky operation at a tiny desk before class. To me, her activity seemed akin to chopping up a watermelon and eating it during a lecture on 19th Century factory aesthetics. But the reality is that it was simple and luxurious and wildly sensual and I was hooked.
Now, one of my favorite food rituals is to peel fruit and eat it, really concentrating on the scent, the flavor, the texture and all the nuances that get lost in the hurried up way we seem to eat most of our meals. This meditation nourishes me as much as the fruit.
I always squeeze the peel and watch the oil spray and fragrance the air. My kids love that trick now, too. They are always standing in a line waiting for me to hand feed drippy segments to them.
It is amazing to me that this fruit grows here so easily and abundantly; we get bags and bags for free from neighbors and family all season. Slightly chilled, these grapefruits and oranges inspire and thrill more than elaborate pastries or caviar. It only took a friend from the other side of the world to show me what was in my own backyard.