On Isle of Palms in the early 1950s, Mrs. W.L. Madden had a reputation as an indefatigable hostess. “Even after a most strenuous day at work,” The Charleston Evening Post marveled, “there is nothing Mrs. Madden enjoys more than entertaining friends and serving savory foods.” Afternoon guests at Madden’s house stood a good chance of being treated to cheese biscuits, Vienna sausage rolls, cranberry gelatin, apple pie and orange loaf, a quick bread that would have been highly challenging a mere five years earlier.
As the University of Florida Extension Service points out in its history of the orange juice trade, citrus fruits are uniquely easy to transform into beverages. Give a man an apple or a cluster of grapes, and he’s likely to stay thirsty. But anyone with a knife and average grip strength can squeeze something swiggable from an orange.
“Consequently, the term ‘fresh squeezed’ has set a taste standard for orange and grapefruit juice that most other fruit juices do not have,” the extension service explains. That familiarity helps account for Americans’ antipathy toward mass-produced orange juice in the early 20th century, when preservation methods consisted of boiling juice until it was purged of bacteria and flavor, and then canning the results. By the time orange juice reached the breakfast table, it might have already spent weeks on a grocery store shelf.
Yet canned juice got a boost in the 1920s, when Elmer McCollum, a biochemist, started preaching about the benefits of vitamin C. According to The Atlantic Monthly, which recently delved into orange juice’s healthful reputation, McCollum persuaded a nation that oranges were the antidote to weakness and fatigue. The message was amplified by orange growers, who published pamphlets warning that acid could build up in the bloodstream if not counteracted by regular doses of orange juice.
“Rarely has a food habit been adopted so quickly by so many people,” Andrew Smith writes in “The Oxford Companion to Food and Drink,” noting “most Americans consumed less-expensive canned juice.”
The U.S. government wasn’t especially worried about its troops contracting acidosis. But scurvy was a real concern during World War II, so soldiers were supplied with lemon crystals to sprinkle on their rations. In theory, it was an excellent scheme. In reality, the vitamin-packed flakes were unpalatable. In 1942, the USDA appointed three researchers to craft a better canned orange juice.
C.D. Atkins, Edwin L. Moore and L.G. MacDowell didn’t finish their work before the war ended. But as The New York Times wrote in Atkins’ obituary, they’re credited with inventing “the process in which the flavor of orange juice could be retained by adding a bit of fresh juice to the concentrate and then freezing it.”
By 1949, Florida was annually producing 10 million gallons of frozen orange juice concentrate. The innovation saved the state’s orange industry, and transformed orange juice from a supposedly nutritious novelty to a household necessity. According to Smith, postwar refrigerators have bigger freezer compartments than their predecessors because of orange juice.
“In 1952, the American Can Company advertised that frozen orange juice had saved housewives the equivalent of 14,000 years of ‘drudgery’ that year,” Adee Braun wrote in Atlantic Monthly.
That same year, Madden invited The Evening Post into her kitchen. She was pictured standing over a counter set with graham crackers (another ingredient with a health fad past) and oranges. Still, it’s likely the availability of thaw-and-dilute orange juice contributed to the appeal of her loaf recipe, which also featured nuts, sugar, eggs and margarine.
Ravi Scher’s Long Island Cafe is located on Isle of Palms, not far from where Madden first prepared her orange-flavored loaf, so he gamely agreed to update the recipe for modern eaters. Initially, Scher was perplexed by the absence of flour. He dutifully followed the recipe as written and ended up with something that “looked like what you maybe spread on the back of floor tiles.”
“It was pretty rugged,” he adds. “It just had a little orange taste, but it really tasted like mushed-up graham crackers.”
Scher decided to remake the quick bread, which reminded him of the British tea cakes he encountered while working in Italy, as a pecan and graham cracker torte with Grand Marnier caramel sauce.
In addition to retaining the nuts from the original recipe, “I still used fresh oranges and orange juice,” he says. “But I threw in a little of Grand Marnier because Grand Marnier is very Charlestonian.”