The mesh bag of grapefruits has a gaping hole in it, causing citrus to roll pell-mell across the kitchen table, like wayward bowling balls heading straight for the gutter. One goes careening over the edge, landing with a thud. The thick skin and ruddy complexion of the renegade is now slightly marred by a dimple. I run it under cold water and dry the portly fruit with a clean kitchen towel. “Sorry you bumped your head,” I hear myself apologizing to the citrus paradisi. I am forced to move the Meyer lemons to a separate bowl and crowd the red grapefruits alongside the white in my favorite sweetgrass basket.
Slicing a grapefruit in half is always the slightest bit surprising. Grapefruits can be deceptive, the inner flesh boasting hues as varied as a line of Max Factor lipsticks. White grapefruit ranges from mellow yellow to sun kissed at high noon while Ruby Reds are known to blush pink or rose or downright vampy. When it is January in the northeast and the remnants from last week’s bone numbing bomb cyclone are leisurely melting into big, sloshy puddles, grapefruit feels sun-drenched and hopeful. So does a small condominium in southern Florida.
Grapefruits were once part of the daily breakfast ritual, halved and divvied up by means of a serrated spoon or grapefruit knife. Yellow or pink grapefruit halves were generally the precursor to a cereal bowl filled with Alpha-bits or Rice Krispies. We never topped our grapefruit halves with sugar, but made certain to squeeze every last droplet of juice from the hollowed fruit. I avoided the outside of the grapefruit like the plague. Its bitterness had an almost frightening quality, what I imagined poison to taste like. The tartness of the flesh, however, was just right; not quite as bracing as a lemon, but certainly bolder than an orange. It was also my favorite vocabulary word in the A-LM French Level One, Second Edition textbook; how could you not love the word pamplemousse?
Recently, we have fallen a little bit out of love with grapefruit. Despite its promise to deliver Vitamin C and a wallop of antioxidants, recent studies indicate that the combination of grapefruit with certain pharmaceuticals may result in dire consequences. Medications prescribed for lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, and relieving allergy symptoms are dangerous when paired with grapefruit. Critical studies indicate that many of the individuals who once consumed grapefruit as part of their balanced diet, are now tethered to the very medications that preclude them from eating the citrus. Additionally, a once healthy processed grapefruit juice industry has felt the squeeze from other juices, those touting perceived health benefits and boasting little added sugar.
This leaves Ruby Reds and Whites as dated as the former glamour girl of the 1930s Hollywood Diet and the 1980s low-carb Grapefruit Diet. In today’s grab-and-go world, grapefruit is cumbersome and messy. It’s not as hip as a blood orange or sweet as a Meyer lemon or curious as an ugli fruit. For those of us faced with an empty pie plate, grapefruit is not the first citrus fruit we turn to. Unlike lemons and limes, grapefruits are needier, playing by a different set of rules. In pie, grapefruit can be finicky, the flavor less bright than lemon or lime, the filling crying out for more stability, more sunshine. Covering it under a blanket of meringue is a little like sprinkling sugar over the fresh fruit; it doesn’t enhance, it over-sweetens.
There are a number of grapefruit pie recipes circulating, many from Southern cookbooks, most of them borrowing from each other, all of them a little too sweet for my taste. A recent foray into a clipping from an old Southern Living offers a recipe for Grapefruit Chess Pie, more sweet than tart, with an undertone of bitterness from the zest. A contemporary cookbook suggests a pie made slightly tipsy with a generous splash of Campari. A third version from the stalwart ladies behind the Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook recommends beaten egg whites folded into grapefruit custard. I had to draw the line at meringue, reserving that for the undeniable pucker of lemon.
Having tried them all, I must admit that while tasty, I still prefer my grapefruit straight up. Even the runt of the grapefruit bag litter, the one whose features are marred with a rather pronounced fallen-off-the-table ding are worth their weight in ruby red or liquid gold. Despite my current talks with Punxsutawney Phil’s people, spring’s arrival remains unclear. There is little choice but to continue peeling the pith from the citrus until that first stalk of rhubarb, poisonous leaves and all, lands on my kitchen table and grapefruit returns to its condo in Boca.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm