Comfort Food

Comfort Food

Oranges for Christmas!

My Vintage Vegetable blog posts this December will all be related to
Christmas.  My early childhood memories of food around Christmastime will likely bring back memories for many of my readers … and will remind the young ones of the importance of remembering how things used to be … compared to how they are now.  Admittedly, 2020 has been a year that has taken many of us back to some of those old ways. 

Some of you probably remember the days when you could go to the grocery store and ‘sign’ for your groceries, running a tab and paying at the end of the month.  My mother never did that.  In fact, she never bought anything on credit and tried to teach her kids to be that thrifty.  (That was a lesson lost on this child!) 

What we did have at our little neighborhood grocery store was just the opposite of that.  Daddy would sell garden produce to the grocer in exchange for credit which could be used later.  Our ‘due bill’ was an amount due to us that we could spend against.  When I mention garden produce, I’m not talking about a few tomatoes!  Daddy exchanged bushels of sweet corn and a truck load of sweet potatoes one year. 

At another little store on the other side of my hometown, Daddy kept a different kind of running tab!  This store was attached to the Deal Brothers Blacksmith Shop.  The Deal Brothers were friends of Daddy’s, and they often swapped labor.  My dad was a carpenter and could build and/or fix anything.  Seriously.  By the time December rolled around each year, Daddy had some credit built up to use in the little tiny grocery store.  The Deal Brothers had relatives that lived in Georgia, so they always had plenty of pecans to sell during the holidays.  We loved our hickory nuts that we’d pick up in the woods and then work diligently to crack and pick out, but we more than loved those beautiful pecans.  The nut meats just fell out of the easily broken shell!   The Deal Brothers also had access to beautiful big oranges from Florida.  That’s where my post is going:  Oranges at Christmastime.

When I was a child, a Christmas treat at school and at church was a paper bag with an apple and an orange in it.  Sometimes there would be a few pieces of candy, too.  Twenty years later, when my daughter was a child, the school and church treat was the same.  Why oranges?  Apples were grown in big orchards in our region, but oranges came from ‘afar’! 

I always thought the tradition of giving an orange as a Christmas gift was related to the Great Depression.  Oranges were expensive, and to get one would have been an incredible treat.  While there is some truth to this notion, the tradition is actually based upon something done by the original Santa. 

Saint Nicholas of Myra lived during the 4th century in what we know as Turkey today.  Many celebrate his feast day on December 6th and in many countries, children receive special gifts on that day.  The orange tradition is linked to a story of Saint Nicholas rescuing three poverty stricken maidens who would have been forced into prostitution because they didn’t have a dowry.  Each of three nights, St. Nicholas tossed a gold ball (maybe a bag of coins) into the window of their home, saving their virtue.  Those balls are represented by our oranges, today.

 This altarpiece was painted in 1435 by Gentile da Fabriana and depicts this story

Putting an orange in the toe of a stocking hanging to  be filled the night before Christmas emerged in the 19th century and was probably due to the 1823 publishing  of “T’was the Night Before Christmas”!   Remember, he filled the stockings!  An orange was certainly less expensive than gold coins!  Oranges at Christmas fell out of vogue, but in 1908, the California Fruit Growers Exchange published many things encouraging people to put an orange in the toe of each Christmas stocking.  In 1931, colorful advertisements showed up like this one!  Santa could deliver cases of those pretty seedless navel oranges.

I think it is safe to say that some marketing men someplace put the orange back in Christmas … or maybe the gold back in Christmas.  By the time my favorite vintage period arrived … the 1950s and 60s, it was a popular stocking stuffer  again!  Nobody at my house waited until Christmas Eve for oranges!  I vividly remember my dad carrying in a big mesh bag, cinched at the top and filled with big juicy oranges!  That is a memory that repeats itself for several years. 

He  was still getting those oranges long after I was grown.  In fact, one year he had me fill stockings for all his grandkids with oranges and apples and tucked in the toe was a twenty dollar bill!  I remember their puzzled teenager looks at the notion that Grandma and Grandpa had given them fruit for Christmas!  Then they found the money and those expressions turned to laughter!

I found a wonderful recipe in one of my 1950s cookbooks published by the Culinary Institute of Chicago.  I’m baking this cake for the first time and sharing the recipe today.  I’m using orange marmalade that I made this summer.

Marmalade dates to the ancient Romans and Greeks.  Citrus was plentiful and cooking the flesh and some of the peel was easily thickened naturally by the pectin it contained.  We know that King Henry VIII received many gifts of marmalade  from Portugal and history tells us that it was a favorite of Anne Boleyn. 

The same Fruit Growers Exchange and marketing men who pushed the return of oranges to Christmas stockings, encouraged making or buying marmalade!


Orange Marmalade Upside Down Cake

Line an 8 inch cake pan or pie dish with parchment paper.  I cut my paper in a circle the same size as the bottom of my pie dish.  Spray the bottom of the pan first, then spray the sides and parchment with cooking spray to prevent sticking.  While the original recipe called for 8 Tablespoons of marmalade, I actually used a 14 ounce jar.  I think it needs more than 8 Tablespoons.   Simply spoon that all over the bottom of the dish … on top of the parchment paper.

Prepare the cake batter using these ingredients:

2 sticks of room temperature butter

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 ½ cups of flour

¾ cup of milk


Whip the butter and the sugar until glossy.  Add the eggs and continue beating until thick.  Alternately add the flour and the milk to the batter, continuing to beat.  The batter will be glossy.  Gently spoon the batter over the marmalade.

Place the cake dish in a larger pan of water to bake it.  The water should come up to about a third of the side of the dish.  Cover the whole thing with foil.

Bake this cake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes.  It essentially steams.

When done, remove the cake pan/pie dish from the larger pan of water and let it cool for fifteen minutes. Turn the cake out by placing a plate over the top and inverting quickly. Peel the parchment paper off the cake.

This cake is scrumptious.  The cake is light but rich and the marmalade is an incredible sweet topping.  If you bake a square, serve 9 pieces.  If you bake a round, cut it into 8 pieces. 


This recipe is part of my 2020 Vintage Vegetables Project.  I’ll be sharing the post with a couple parties, so check the list on my sidebar.  If you are interested in similar posts, just click my menu button.   Enjoy!

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