Monday, January 13, 2014

Tropical lime oat bars

One day eight or ten years ago the Chicago Tribune ran a summertime feature on refreshing lime dessert recipes. I regret to say it has taken me this long to make even one of them, today's Tropical Lime Oat Bars -- though in fairness to myself I will say that at least I always knew these sounded very interesting.

And shall we consider the lime, briefly? Did you know, for example, that the green spheroid we see in our grocery stores, called the "Persian or Tahiti or Bearss lime" (Citrus latifolia), may be a hybrid of the "true" Mexican or Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia), and a fruit called the citron? Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking tells us this. He also tells us that all citrus fruits are believed to descend from hybrids and crosses of three parent plants, the citron, the Mandarin orange, and the pummelo. This last has tended to stay in its home in tropical Asia, where conditions are as warm as it likes.

You must believe me. I had no sooner innocently armed myself with these small bits of information on the innocent Lime, than I happened to be riding in a car with a friend who visits Mexico frequently. "The things that grow there naturally," my friend marvelled as he thumbed the steering wheel. "Mangoes, bananas, guava, right in your backyard. No fertilizer. No care. Different kinds of limes ..."

"Really," I said.

And do we remember the chapter in Little Women when the youngest March sister, Amy, gets into a scrape at school over pickled limes? First she has to borrow money from her older sister Meg to buy them to begin with. Her friends have treated her so often, she knows it is past her turn.
 "Why, I owe at least a dozen pickled limes, and I can't pay them, you know, till I have money, for Marmee forbade my having anything charged at the shop."
"Tell me all about it. Are limes the fashion now? It used to be pricking bits of rubber to make balls." And Meg tried to keep her countenance, Amy looked so grave and important.
"Why, you see, the girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it too. It's nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else, at recess. If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime. If she's mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn't offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I've had ever so many but haven't returned them, and I ought for they are debts of honor, you know."
"How much will pay them off and restore your credit?" asked Meg, taking out her purse.
"A quarter would more than do it, and leave a few cents over for a treat for you. Don't you like limes?"
So pickled limes cost about a penny a piece in Civil War era Massachusetts, available to schoolgirls for nothing more than the family "rag money," or a quarter borrowed from big Sis. There was a time when citrus fruits were exotic little slices of the sun -- though perhaps they are always that -- their yellow and green and orange orbs purchased dear and meant only to be looked at, not squeezed or scraped for zest, and still less pickled.

As with so many foodstuffs, the story of their dispersion is the same. They originated in far away India or China, might have reached the classical world by about the year 100 A.D., and were at length brought to the west by Crusaders coming home overland from the fabulous East carrying sour oranges, by Arabs marching across Africa and out into the Mediterranean and bringing their orange and lemon trees with them, and later by the great explorers sailing home from the distant West bearing sweeter oranges, juicier lemons, and the very sour and tropics-loving lime. A quaint article by one Walter Monfried in the Milwaukee Journal, from quaint days when American newspapers reported in depth on such things (September 1 1960), says that a few full centuries into all this furore, citrus were still so rare that "the [London] leather-sellers' company contributed six silver pennies to buy one lemon for display at a banquet for King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn" -- this would have been about the year 1535, when the short-lived Anne was still queen. Note the company only contributed six silver pennies. So the one lemon cost in total more than that. By the way, the king was in the news in Milwaukee in 1960 because archaeologists were busy in England unearthing his ruined palace, Nonsuch. On the same page of the Journal was a letter to the editor about the now-forgotten Francis Gary Powers U-2 spy "incident."

C. Ann Wilson, in Food and Drink in Britain, further explains that by the middle of Henry's sixteenth century it was the Portuguese who were primarily responsible for shipping those sweet oranges (from Ceylon) to Europe. The Journal's Monfried agrees that the link was obvious enough for English people to give the fruit the very pretty name "portyngale." A hundred years after Henry's time, Samuel Pepys actually saw an orange tree -- a portyngale tree? -- in "Lord Brooke's garden" in 1666, and pilfered one of the unripe ones. Twenty years later still, lime trees had been introduced into England's colony, Jamaica, where they grew so well that lime juice by the cask (we are consulting Food and Drink in Britain again) was exported back to the mother country. We know the familiar tale of British sailors being given citrus juices, especially lime, to prevent scurvy. When the great Mrs. Beeton was compiling her Book of Household Management in England in the early 1860s, she advised that the making of orange preserves and orange wine was one of the needful tasks -- of springtime, oddly enough. So, citrus was plentiful enough by then to be useful for more than just looking at, and one put up the last of the oranges in springtime I suppose because, by then, the plentiful supplies of winter were running out, and the groves of the faraway tropics, orange or lemon or what have you, were just flowering anew.

This returns us to Little Women's era, and the saga of the pickled limes. And the Amy March Shirt of Justice. I kid you not.

Graphic by Andrew Nelson
This graphic comes from a great blog called Tomato Nation, which I found when I happened to google "Amy March pickled limes" hoping to find some cookery geek who might have unearthed or created a recipe for them. Instead, I found Sarah D. Bunting's short, very punchy article excoriating Amy March for simply existing, and as it happens catching us all up on the universe of Amy March hatred. Before plunging in, know that Amy's awful teacher, Mr. Davis, catches her with the limes in class and makes her throw them all out -- twenty five of them!
 One of the most satisfying moments in children's literature, in my personal opinion. I've always hated Amy March, and when that little brat has to huck all her limes out the window and gets whacked across the palm with a ruler to boot, reader, I smirk every time. Of course, it totally ruins it that she gets to storm home from school in the middle of the day and stay home forever because Marmee is a pinko who doesn't believe in capital punishment, and then she destroys Jo's shit and the whole family's all "she feels terrible, let's forgive her in five minutes" LIKE HOW ABOUT LET'S MAKE HER LIVE ON THE ROOF, AND THEN Captain Hormone Pianopants Laurie has to go and marry her, like, oh, she does sketches and will french me in a rowboat on the Continent, well la dee fucking da.

But for that brief shining moment, as the dreaded Irish children scuffle over the pickled limes, we older siblings could feel like we'd seen some justice. And now you can commemorate that moment in t-shirt form. Wear it, give it as a gift, buy two and throw 'em out the window, whatever you want. Just don't borrow Sallie's and then burn a hole in it. (…Right? That happened? To Meg, not Amy, but still.)
Sarah D. Bunting really did make a t-shirt out of the graphic, and I presume you could still go to her online shop and order one if you wish. I think, also, she wanted to say "Marmee is a pinko who hates" corporal punishment, not capital. Although given the way her 107 commenters agreed with her, maybe not. And I did ask Ms. Bunting in an email for permission to reproduce both her writing and her graphic, but she never answered me. So here they both are. La dee fucking da.

Now a long time ago, we were going to bake the Chicago Tribune's tropical lime oat bars. Here they are. If you wish to omit the coconut because you don't care for coconut (hear hear), or replace the macadamia nuts with some other nut, la dee -- I mean, I wish you joy of your free-thinkingness.

Tropical lime oat bars

1 stick (half a cup) of butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups uncooked oats, quick or old fashioned
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tsp finely grated lime zest
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 jar (3 and 1/2 ounces) macadamia nuts, chopped

Heat oven to 350 F. Combine sugar, oats, flour, and salt in a large bowl; rub in the butter with your fingers until the dough is moist and crumbly. Reserve 1 cup of the mixture.

Press remaining oat mixture into a 13 x 9 baking dish, greased with a little butter or non-stick cooking spray. Bake 10 minutes

Combine sweetened condensed milk, lime juice, lime zest, and sour cream in a small bowl. Pour evenly over partially baked crust.

Combine the cup of reserved oat mix with coconut and macadamia nuts, and sprinkle evenly over the filling. Pat down lightly.

Bake until topping is a light golden brown, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool completely before cutting into bars; store covered in the refrigerator. (This storing-in-the-refrigerator business makes the bars as hard as cement. Must we?)

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