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Foodlore: Apples and Oranges
History of 'Oranges and Lemons' Rhyme
"Oranges and lemons" say the Bells of St. Clement's "You owe me five farthings" say the Bells of St. Martin's "When will you pay me?" say the Bells of Old Baile
At some point or another we’ve all, most likely, heard the saying ‘it’s apples and orange,’ or ‘it’s like comparing apples to oranges.’ This idiom has been popular for many years and today we use it when we want to point out the pointlessness of trying to compare two things that might at first seem relatable, but are in truth incomparable. This is a reflection of apples and oranges themselves as they are in fact both fruit, but they are completely different in their growing conditions, their appearance, and their taste. While one might have a preference for one fruit or the other it is not possible to say that one particular apple is better than a particular orange when the person is judging both according to how an apples should taste.
Ironically, these fruits have not only been compared over and over again, but they have also been possibly confused with one another in various myths. The Greeks have several myths concerning golden apples, which we already looked at in Foodlore: Apple of My Eye. Scholars have suggested, however, that these golden apples were not apples at all but oranges. This revelation isn’t too shocking since the word ‘apple’ was commonly used in Europe until as late as the seventeenth century to refer not only specifically to apples, but as a general name for any fruit as well.
Oranges pop up in tales like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast
Oranges in European Lore
Even though oranges were upstaged by apples in the golden apple myths, they have recovered nicely from the slight and there are many tales of oranges all over the world. Many times in European mythology oranges do not play a major role in the myths, but are something that happens to be somewhere. This is true at least of one of the Norse myths and two French renditions of popular folktales.
In the Norse tale of Freyja’s necklace, the Goddess meets some dwarves and receives a necklace from them. The dwarves warn the Freyja that the necklace will not bring her happiness, but the Goddess doesn’t listen. With her prize around her neck she returned to her palace in Asgard to show her husband Odur. However, when she gets home, she finds that Odur is gone. Freyja searches the whole world for him, but cannot find him. Eventually she does find her husband in a grove where myrtle trees and oranges grow in the sunny south and the two of them return to Asgard.
In a French retelling of the story of Cinderella, the little cinder girl has the most temperate and kind of natures. When her fairy god mother grants her the ability to go to the ball bedecked as a princess, she is kind to her stepsisters. When the guests sit down to feast she gives her sisters all kinds of attentions including sharing with them oranges and lemons that the king has provided for his guests. The sisters did not recognize Cinderella at the ball and later recount to her how the mysterious princess shared her fruit with them. In the end of this tale Cinderella continued to be kind to her sisters and freely forgave them for their ill treatment of her, and married them off to high ranking courtiers.
Another French tale that mentions oranges is Beauty and the Beast. In this version Beauty is one of six daughters and six sons of a wealth merchant, who falls into bad luck. Her father’s journey to see if a rumor that one of his ships made it back with a rich cargo, goes badly. On the way back to his family’s little cottage he gets lost in a snowstorm and finds the beast’s castle which is lined with an avenue of orange trees. The trees and all of the grounds of the palace are enchanted, so even though it is the middle of winter the orange trees, and everything else is in full bloom. This enchantment gets the merchant into more trouble when he plucks a rose for Beauty. The beast demands that one of the merchant’s daughters return to live with him, which of course Beauty does. Eventually Beauty realizes her love for the beast and the enchantment on him and his castle is broken.
Folk painting of the Magic Orange Tree
Magic Oranges in the New World
On the other side of the world oranges play a more prominent part in some of the tales from the Caribbean and the Americas. The tale of the magic orange tree comes to us from Haiti. As in the European tale of Cinderella, a man loses his wife when his only daughter is very young, and takes for his second wife a woman who is very haughty. In this tale the second wife doesn’t have any daughters, but she still treats her stepdaughter very poorly. The stepmother makes the girl go hungry, and the poor girl suffers with no help from her father, who is completely ruled by his cruel wife.
One day the girl finds three oranges in the kitchen and because she is so hungry she eats them all. Fearing her stepmother’s anger, she runs away to her mother’s grave and cries, because she doesn’t know what to do. She finds an orange pit, plants it and sings to it. The seed grows into a tree, the tree blooms and produces beautiful sweet oranges. The girl takes the oranges back to her stepmother, who demands to know where she got them. After a while the stepmother persuades the girl to take her to the tree. The stepmother climbs up the tree and starts eating all of the oranges. The girl sings to the tree again and the tree grows really tall so the stepmother can’t get down. The girl sings again to the tree and it breaks into pieces along with the cruel stepmother. After the tree is destroyed, the girl finds another orange pit and plants another tree, which provides her with sweet oranges to sell in the market.
Two different versions of ’The Three Magic Oranges’ come from Costa Rica and Mexico. In the Costa Rican version of the myth a prince sets out on a journey to find a girl to marry. He picks three oranges from a tree and while he is crossing a desert he gets really thirsty and decides to cut into one of the oranges. A maiden with blonde hair and blue eyes appears and asks for water, but the prince has none to give so she disappears and the prince eats the orange. Eventually he grows thirsty again and cuts into the second orange, this time the maiden has red hair and green eyes. She also asks for water and disappears when there is none. The prince saves the last orange until he reaches a stream and a dark haired, dark eyed maiden appears and he gives her a drink. The two return to the palace and are wed.
The witch who had cursed the girl finds out that the curse was broken and is angry. She disguises herself as a peddler selling fruits and pins. The queen calls her into the palace so she can see the pins and the witch puts a pin in her head. The queen is transformed into a dove and flies off. She is caught by the king and put in a golden cage for the queen. When the king arrives he finds his wife is gone. After a few years he remembers the dove and on examining the bird finds the pin and pulls it out. The bird transforms back into the queen and she tells what happened to her. The witch dies in a fire that she set in her hut and the king and queen live happily ever after.
The Mexican version of the tale, ‘La Reina Mora,’ is essentially the same, but with a few twists. The maidens that appear out of the oranges ask for bread instead of water. The bread is bought from a traveling gypsy man and the orange maiden is left with the gypsy so the prince can bring her back suitable clothing. The gypsy has a daughter who sees the prince leaving and falls in love with him. She offers to comb the orange maiden’s hair and thrusts a pin into her head, turning her into a dove.
When the prince returns the gypsy girl claims to be his orange maiden and believing her the prince marries her. The dove meanwhile comes to the prince’s garden and asks the gardener if the prince is happy. The gardener tells her that some days he laughs but mostly he cries. The dove comes back often and asks the gardener the same question, until one day the prince catches her and pulls the pin out of her head. They tell the king of the gypsy girl’s treachery and she is burned at the stake. The prince marries his real orange girl and they are happy.
Cole, Joanna. Best-Loved Folktales of the World. Anchor Books Doubleday. 1982.
Foster, Mary H. and Mabel H. Cummings, A.B. Tales From Norse Mythology. Silver, Burdett and Company. 1901.
Magic Tales of Mexico: La Reina Mora. http://www.g-world.org/magictales/reina.html. 2012.