Rinds litter the surface and give landscape to the toast and gout to bitter remnants of last year’s produce. Orange nails curl to clutch, to balance this breakfast.
My grandmother has smiley eyes as glazed over as her homemade marmalade. I see my english muffin charring and emitting a black smoke, but she’s too distracted by distant days to notice. Days when wood stoves would leave a dark, oily film on tables and chairs and when she would run, skirts swooshing, to throw her arms around my great-grandfather, greeting him with sticky fingers.
Sticky, marmalade-stirring fingers are all I remember.
Grapefruit, kumquat, orange, calamondin, lemon: I could mark my life in marmalades– my mother’s thick-cut magic mixed at the stove from fat Mamade cans; sticky ginger and lemon and coarse-cut varieties from the English year, their thick scents rolling in from the nearby Chivers factory as we headed to school; mild marmalade toasts my French mother served with tea Friday afternoons in some sad pantomime of aristocracy; undecipherable varieties more chutney than marmalade spread across my Asian and South American travels; and now the blood-orange jars that fill my cupboard, morning toast taking my tongue, my nose into bittersweet memory.
I began at 9 years old, watching my mother spoon sweet batches of strawberry and rhubarb into glistening cut glass jars and seal me into the secret of tea and scones. Then I read Paddington and discovered marmalade behind the sour cherry preserves (specially made for Grandma). Tangy, sticky, sprinkled with candied peel like a surprise, I spread it in knife-fulls on my lemon ginger scones at 4 and swabbed at it with my buttermilk biscuits at 7. Pear, flecked with cinnamon; Blood Orange with candied peel; Lemon Ginger gooeyness; an array of colors and English garden flavors to brighten up the tea tray and tango with our darjeeling.
I always liked marmalade more as a concept. Oh, orange marmalade? That must be DELICIOUS. I mean it’s got oranges in it, and just listen to that word. Mar-ma-lade. But when confronted with bits of peel and pulp in something that shared only color with oranges, I sent it back, toast nibbled and gnawed at and condemned to the garbage disposal. Peanut butter, raspberry jam, plain boring old butter, anything was better than marmalade. But I can’t seem to remember tiring of it, always asking for marmalade in the hope that this time, it might be different.
Marmalade is a word from Alice and Wonderland or Queen Elizabeth rather than my own life. We ate jam, sometimes apricot or my favorite, raspberry. My mom made us cream cheese and jelly sandwiches and we ate them on the porch with a juice box, wiping lemonade from one cheek and sticky jelly from the other. Only this year, when I visited Darjeeling, did I witness the traditional tea-time complete with ‘Marmalade.’ Soggy gardens, dew-drenched orchids, crumbling gazebos and the tiny porcelain pots of marmalade, as soft and gelatinous as the orange light that crept in and sweetened dusk.
My grandmother keeps jars of marmalade in her refrigerator, on the glass shelf labeled “CONDIMENTS”. My grandmother doesn’t actually eat marmalade. She keeps two bottles in the house for my grandfather, who eats it on his toast every morning. She gets mad if he opens both jars at the same time, although there are so many preservatives in her marmalade, it would never go bad. She wipes all of the bottles down every week, usually on Saturdays, so they don’t get sticky and leave yellow memories on the glass. I wonder if my grandfather even likes marmalade.
Come on you stupid piece of crap. You’re called a “toaster” so TOAST already. Seriously, you sit there all nonchalantly and expect me to just patiently await your sycophantic “pop.” Well, I’ve got news for you, buddy: I’m trading your bagel-burning, crumb-leaking butt in for a top-of-the-line, four-slice Kitchen-Aid model. So your sorry, plastic-coated General-Electric self can kiss the days of making me wait an eternity for my marmalade and toast goodbye. Ciao. Sayonara, Mr. “I’ll Suck Down Your Iron Kids Bread, Glow Orange a Couple Times and Ultimately Refuse to Release My Once-White-Now-Blackened Hostage.” It’s definitely you, not me.
Marmalade to me is a dignified jam. It’s the kind of jam you’d spread on rolls, or croissants or something (not toast)—“marmalade” conjures up visions of ramshackle apartments over the River Seine…apartments that once were something (with peeling lavish wallpaper and gold leaf), and a beautiful woman with exotic teas…
“Marmalade” is like that scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts is eating breakfast at the expensive hotel. To be honest, I’m not sure what marmalade is; I’ve never had it, and it’s not a word I’d ever use. I’m not comfortable with “marmalade.” It’s bigger than me.
It was a rare occasion when my family went out to breakfast. Breakfast was waking up. Breakfast was at home, generally a bowl of cereal at the kitchen table with no guarantee that anybody else would be hungry at the same time as you. It was exotic and almost impractical, then, when we went to Friendly’s for breakfast on a Saturday morning. My brother and I would always play with the little glass jars of fruit preserves that probably didn’t contain any fruit. We used to threaten our parents that we were going to open all of them and eat the contents. Marmalade was always avoided at all costs, though, like poison.
Marmalade to me always will be French. It was at a family vacation to Paris that I was treated to this heavenly delicious thing. The b&b we stayed at served orange and chocolate marmalade cozily tucked in warm buttery croissants- one bite and the warm guey liquid ozes out- humm delicious. My parents sitting beside me, my sisters were there- we had a lovely time that I remember bits and pieces of. And one piece of this memory puzzle is related to marmalade. I have tried eating this later when I grew up, made it myself but somehow I never could recreate the magic. Marmalade is a delusion- a remant mirage I would say- of the perfect vacation I had as a child. I do not eat it any more- I want it to mean something special to me- for always!