Satsuma, Part I
Satsuma, Part I
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 , and Civil War . . . in Japan. How small the world is. How integrated times and places can be.
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.
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“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.
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.
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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.