Does an orange have to be bright orange to be ripe?
Floridians say no. They say you can't judge an orange just by looking at its color. That some perfectly ripe oranges have a little green on the skin.
But Californians disagree. They say the clue to what is inside is the color of its skin. That the oranger the orange, the sweeter the fruit.
This is a long-standing dispute over the color of sweetness, which in ordinary times the Californians would easily win. Most of the orange-eating public, including myself, want our oranges to approach sensual perfection.
For years, the navel oranges of California have been the ideal orange. They have perfect skin, a great body and just the right amount of sweetness.
In addition, they are easy to deal with. They peel readily and don't have any troublesome seeds.
But some weeks ago, a massive freeze in California darkened the lives of us orange eaters all around the country. The freeze destroyed 80 percent of the navel crop and made the surviving California oranges scarce and pricey.
Meanwhile, down in Florida, the oranges were plentiful if not pretty. This year's harvest of Florida oranges is 46 percent bigger than last year's.
Traditionally almost 90 percent of Florida oranges end up as juice. But according to Cathy Clay of the Florida Department of Citrus, the failure in the competing California orange crop has caused some Florida growers to ship their Valencia oranges to the citrus-starved masses in the supermarkets.
The Florida oranges are not traveling alone. They are being accompanied by a Florida Department of Citrus advertising campaign designed to tell consumers that quality in oranges is not not skin deep. I got a short explantion of this green-ain't-bad education effort during a phone conversation with Ms. Clay.
In brief it goes something like this. Even if oranges are a little green around the rind, they are still ripe. The color of the skin is the result of nighttime temperatures, not ripeness. Oranges from areas of Florida where the nights are warm sometimes keep flecks of green in their skins. Tests of the sugar content of the meat of the greenish oranges have proven they are ripe.
Moreover, an orange doesn't have to have smooth skin to be edible. The little brown spots found on the skin of Florida oranges are more than likely nothing more than "wind scars," places where the branch of the tree has rubbed against the orange.
Since a lot of orange buyers "eat with their eyes," the Floridians are encouraging grocers to slice open the less-than-perfect-looking fruit, and display the insides of the orange to the customers. The idea is to show the folks that these oranges may not be gorgeous, but they'll taste just fine.
Out in Exeter, Calif., Marvin Wilson of Sequoia packers sounded skeptical about the Floridian plan. I explained the plan to Wilson during a phone conversation.
Where he comes from, Wilson said, if oranges are looking little green, you keep them on the tree longer. You don't ship them to market.
Wilson also said he had heard tales of supermarket shoppers saying they wanted any California oranges, even freeze-damaged ones, over the strange looking fruit from Florida.
But I also heard a note of resignation in Wilson's voice. He said his orange crop for this year was pretty well wiped out.
And so while he may have some valid points about what an eating orange should look like, he couldn't hold up any examples.
At least not this year.