Satsuma, Part I


Satsuma, Part I

温州蜜柑, さつま町

What people in the Deep South call a Satsuma.


Note:  after reading and, hopefully, enjoying this piece, please make sure to visit “Satsuma, Part II“, which brings this history and many of the twists and turns surrounding All Things Satsuma, up to date.


When I was a kid in Northern Virginia in the ’60s and ’70s, my father made a point of treating the family to oranges and tangerines and all such citrus fruit around Christmas.  There were always a couple of tangerines in the stockings on Christmas morning.  This was nice and I came to associate that citrus smell mingled with those of pine from the Christmas tree and hot chocolate and burning wood from the fireplace and sometimes snow with the whole holiday season.

But I didn’t really get why all varieties of orange were so special to my South Alabama born-and-bred father until he, as well as my West Virginia-raised mother, would from time-to-time reminisce about growing up during the Great Depression and how a few oranges were such an incredible treat, were a luxury, around Christmastime.  Being raised during the “boom” ’60s and ’70s, such a time as that in which my parents were raised was difficult for me to comprehend.

There was another reason, though, that tied my father, who just past away last year just shy of his 86th birthday and his and my mother’s 60th wedding anniversary, to all manner of citrus as December rolled around.  Growing up in the very Deep South gave him and his family put them in relative proximity to Central Florida’s orange groves, whose annual bounty came in season beginning around late September, extending into the winter.  But there was more:  it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when my immediate family moved from the cacophony and concrete of Metro D.C. to the pines and placidity of extreme Southeast Alabama (7 miles from the Florida Line), that I began to learn that this part of the country had its own, “native” citrus crop, a direct descendant of what’s now Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu Island, Japan . . . and the Meiji Restoration, a retired Union Army General, and Civil War . . . in Japan.  How small the world is.  How integrated times and places can be.

My family’s satsuma tree. November 2009.



In 1878 retired U.S. General Robert Van Valkanberg, fresh from a diplomatic posting in Japan, made his way to the wilds of Southwest Alabama to make manifest his dream to become a citrus baron.  In 2005 two towns situated at the southernmost tip of Japan’s southernmost large island, Kyushu, merged to become the small city of Satsuma-cho, “-cho” meaning “town” in Japanese (さつま町).  Several times over Thanksgiving Weekend 2009, I walked out from the back door of my parents’ home in southeast Alabama, 7 miles from the Florida line, and picked and ate small, delicate, sweet and sour “mandarin oranges”, locally called “satsumas“, and thought of my father who about 10 years earlier planted the tree that continues to bring them forth, ready-to-savor, beginning around every early-to-mid November.

.   .   .

“a most agreeable day”

In the waning months of the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Congressman Robert Van Valkenberg — a New York lawyer who had raised militias to fight in the war (he commanded the New York Volunteers 107th Regiment at the Battle of Antietam) — to the post of U.S. Minister to a newly-opened Japan, a country that was experiencing its own internal upheavals after 250 years of isolationism, feudalism and internal stability.  The former ruling Tokugawa Shogunite (generalissimo) Regime had recently been toppled, the Emperor had been “restored” to his place of prominence as Japan’s leader, a cabinet of sorts had been established to advise Emperor Meiji on reasserting and consolidating his family’s position in Japan, and various skirmishes and all out battles were breaking out throughout Japan (and would do so for a couple of decades to come) between those loyal to the Emperor and those loyal to the Shogunite.  It was a confusing time.  And these were the times, in August 1866, that General Van Valkenberg arrived in Tokyo Bay and was received by the new, fragile government as Washington’s top liaison to Japan.  According to one contemporary account, it was, all in all, a most agreeable day.

Satsuma tree. Slocomb, Alabama. November 2008.


Now exactly how Gen. Van Valkenberg became familiar with a particular type of tangerine grown on the southern tip of Japan’s southern most large island, Kyushu, appears lost in antiquity.  However, what’s not debatable is that as the United States’ Foreign Minister to Japan from 1866 until November 1869, there’s no doubt that he was treated and feted to all of Japan’s best delicacies, which would include the best citrus from what was then-called Satsuma Domain (Satsuma-han), later to become part of present day Kagoshima Prefecture.  Van Valkenberg’s familiarity with Deep South Japan also came by way of his intervening in one of the internal struggles — and battles — which flared between rival “pro-Emperor” vs. “pro-Feudal System” armies in Southern Japan, known as the Boshin War and waged in the heart of old Satsuma Domain.  Minister Van Valkenberg initially blocked the delivery of the French-built ironclad ship, C.S.S. Stonewall, to the Japanese government, desiring to keep the U.S. neutral during Japan’s civil war(s), but eventually delivery was made and a ship originally built for the Confederate Navy went into service as Japan’s first ironclad navel vessel.  Another twist to the story:  when in 1865 the then-named C.S.S. Stonewall (later renamed the Kōtetsu by the Japanese navy) first arrived off the U.S. East Coast, manned by Confederate sailors, one of the U.S. ships that met it was the U.S.S. Kearsarge, which in June 1864 sank the Confederate raider, C.S.S. Alabama, off the Cherbourg, France.  Small world.

.        .        .

Please see:  Satsuma,  Part II:  satsumas arrive from Japan to Alabama (and Florida, and Louisiana. . . ).  Cold snaps wipe-out dreams (ahh . . . doesn’t that say so much), new towns are born, beer’s brewed and, well, other things happen.

Local Satsumas (right). Wicksburg, Alabama. November 26, 2011.

    • Carol
    • December 3rd, 2009

    Connections indeed.

    Our parents are of the same generation — Depression-era youths. My dad used to tell a story about what a treat an apple was — if a kid got one, his playmates would call “core-sies” for the privilege of nibbling on what was left around the core when he was done with it. Hard for us pampered kids of the ’60s and ’70s to comprehend an apple or orange as a rare treat.

      • letsjapan
      • December 3rd, 2009

      Thank you, Carol. That means a lot to me, and I hope anyone who reads this. Helps to make it real.


    • Karlotta
    • December 4th, 2009

    I never liked oranges in the stockings. I never liked real oranges to eat… too much work… and the seeds. I wasn’t much for the pulp either. However, my true introduction to citrus delight of the orange color came, of course, in France… around Thanksgiving the “clémentines” start to appear in the markets. I had never had those before. So delicious. Like candy and still a treat. Never had a satsuma as far as I know, although the word is familiar to me and it felt like a distant cousin coming to visit in this story.

      • letsjapan
      • December 4th, 2009


      Satsumas are, indeed, seedless. I hope the photo atop this piece makes you hungry for one. As for “distant cousins”, well, of course we’re cousins: you’re from the South, I’m from the South, ipso facto . . .

      Make sure to come back/tune-in in 1-3 days for Part II. All kind things to you, Cousin –


    • Sam Fleming
    • August 24th, 2011

    Funny that you posted this on one of my wall entries when you did, Rick. They’ve been rerunning the “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament this week, and today (8/24/11) there was a question about the “Satsuma Rebellion” (or similar name). Wonder if the cosmos is sending us a message or something?

  1. My husband’s Italian father used to place the tangerine peels on the stove burner which perfumed the house. That is what we do with the peels as well. Too fragrant to throw away!

    At Christmas I cover oranges with cloves. I have some that are 30 years old! They make great gifts, if you have the heart to give them away after all that work. One can keep them in the pantry to dissuade weevils from moving in but I keep mine in a bowl for people to admire.

    I also remember a show on Japanese food art in the Miami area a dozen years ago. What fascinated me the most was a peeled tangerine in a glass case that totally artificial yet it made my mouth water.

      • letsjapan
      • November 27th, 2011


      Thanks so much for those memories! When I was little my dad would make sure we had oranges and tangerines around Christmas. He grew up during The Depression and remembered when oranges were a real treat. That appreciation for citrusy things was part of why he planted those satsuma trees, and cumquat trees (sort of half-tree, half bush). I’m looking right now a a bag of cumquats, sitting over on my dining room table, that I picked off one of those trees yesterday.

      I remember hearing in high school that the cloves-in-oranges come from Elizabethan times when Londoners (women especially) would carry them around as “perfume,” owing to a disdain for bathing in that part of the world in those days. Maybe that’s apocryphal.

      Thanks again for visiting, Alexis.


    • Dick Echols
    • November 27th, 2011

    I associate citrus with Christmas, too. I remember when all the “Santas” on the radio (pre-TV era) included “fruit, nuts and candy” as part of what he promised to bring each kid. Citrus wasn’t really a luxury in the post-WW2 era but it was less common than now. I consider good citrus as being Nature’s way of making it up to us humans for having the days so short in Winter.

  1. December 8th, 2009
  2. December 12th, 2009

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