Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/12/2016 (1542 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — It was a simple text from my husband, who was at the grocery store.
"Do you prefer mandarins or clementines?" he asked.
"Mandarins," was my response. "Clementines aren’t even remotely close."
I started to spin with excitement at the notion he would return home with some easy-to-peel sweet citrus goodness that would bring memories of childhood Christmases rushing into my brain with one delectable bite.
I was wrong.
He returned empty-handed, no orange cardboard box filled with the smell of Christmas nestled within the green tissue paper inside.
"They had no mandarins," he told me with a shrug. "Only clementines."
Dispirited, I raised my shoulders and sighed. Such is the holiday life of a westerner in Ontario, where finding real Asian mandarin oranges is a regularly fruitless endeavour.
It is, to be sure, an entirely privileged problem to have. But if you stumble across a western Canadian living east of the Manitoba-Ontario border in December, you can be assured they will have one thing in common: a desire to find real mandarins for the holidays. Each one will certainly remember that moment when they realized mandarins are hard to find in the east and clementines just don’t cut it.
Honestly, until I moved to Ontario for university, I didn’t even know clementines existed. But if you ask anyone raised in the East how they feel, you will be assured clementines are the far superior fruit, even if many of them weren’t aware of the mandarin at all.
Forget language or politics or hockey teams. It is the Christmas orange that creates the great Canadian divide.
On Facebook recently, a friend from Edmonton posted a photo of his daughter with a grocery basket filled with produce, including that familiar box of mandarin oranges. Another Ottawa resident, whom I have never met, posted her jealousy. She and I immediately bonded over where in Ottawa we might be able to track down such citrus perfection in the nation’s capital.
If I wanted to start a Twitter war, I could just post about the superiority of the mandarin to the clementine and sit back and watch nature take its course. (In fact, I sort of tried that with a friend last week who bragged about her three clementines, but I honestly suck at fighting on social media, and our battle lasted less time than it takes to peel a Christmas orange.)
I am one of those Canadians with my heart in two places. A born-and-raised Winnipegger, I have lived in Ontario for more than one-third of my life and the majority of my adult life. I might occasionally cheer for the Ottawa Senators, and I was right thrilled to watch the Redblacks win the Grey Cup, but when it comes to oranges, you will pry my preference for the mandarin over the clementine from my frozen, Prairie-born hands.
The clementine is smaller, more tart, and in my humble opinion, harder to peel than the mandarin. A clementine is actually a hybrid of a mandarin and a sweet orange. The geography of the Christmas orange in Canada is a simple matter of economics and freight weight. Mandarins hail mainly from China now, and Japan before. They are shipped into Canada via West Coast ports.
Clementines are mainly grown in Spain and Morocco and arrive via the East Coast. Shipping them all the way to the West is more expensive and raises the price, as does shipping Asian oranges east.
It is believed the Christmas orange was introduced to Canada in the 1880s when Japanese immigrants received them to celebrate the arrival of the new year. They eventually became major holiday imports.
Today, when it is hard to know when the Christmas season really starts, given Costco’s penchant for starting to sell Christmas trees and wrapping paper as early as August, it is the first glimpse of the Christmas orange on grocery store shelves that truly marks the start of the time to give season’s greetings.
My memory of the fruit is still fond, even with countless Christmases beginning with the discovery of a mould-covered, shrivelled-up mandarin forgotten in the toe of at least one stocking.
So Winnipeggers, this holiday season, as you inevitably break open the peel of yet another one of those tiny mandarin delights, take a moment to remember us out east, for whom that Christmas pleasure is too often denied.
Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.