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Real Florida

Seeded bliss

Jilted in the name of modern convenience, the hard-to-get but engaging Duncan grapefruit still has its devoted admirers.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published January 29, 2005


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[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
Al Repetto, 80, owner of Orange Blossom Groves in Clearwater, searches for a good Duncan. “Nobody wants to deal with a seedy grapefruit, and that’s a fact,” he says.

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The Duncan, a Pinellas County native variety, still has fans, but most of them are old enough to remember its hey-day decades ago.
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Citrus grower Al Repetto walks through his trove of Duncan treasures. He keeps a few of the trees in case a customer wants the seedy fruit.

CLEARWATER - The Cadillac of grapefruit, the Duncan, was born in Pinellas County more than a century ago. Named after the grower who developed it, the Duncan became known as the best-tasting grapefruit in the world, the sweetest, fattest and juiciest - a globe of morning sun that all but announced "Welcome to Florida."

A Duncan needs no spoonful of sugar, or dollop of maple syrup, or other kitchen hocus-pocus. Duncans manage sweet and tart at the same time.

"The Duncan is far and away the best-tasting grapefruit there is," declares Jim Griffiths, a 90-year-old member of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame and managing partner of Citrus Grower Associates in Lakeland. "You can't do any better."

You can still encounter a few Duncans in scattered back yards in the Tampa Bay area, but good luck finding them at the market. In a cell phone world, the Duncan has become the citrus industry's version of the telegraph, sentenced to obsolescence for the unforgivable crime of having too many seeds.

"Nobody wants to deal with a seedy grapefruit, and that's a fact," Al Repetto says.

At 80, Repetto owns the last commercial citrus grove in Pinellas County, which was once the state's grapefruit capital with 17,000 acres. The other day, a 95-year-old man drove to Repetto's business, Orange Blossom Groves on U.S. 19 in Clearwater, and demanded Duncans. Alas, Repetto's bins contained only seedless marsh and ruby red grapefruits, tasty by modern standards, but not Cadillacs.

It has been years since Repetto stocked Duncans, for the simple reason that customers seldom ask for them anymore. Yet he still has a few trees in his 30-acre spread behind the warehouse. He loaded the old gentleman into a golf cart and drove deep into the grove, stopping at a century-old tree that held a few mighty Duncans.

The old man went home happy.

"It's only old people who have even heard of Duncans," says Repetto, who opened his grove in 1946. "It's funny when I think about it. At one time, that's all anybody sold."

Who could have predicted that the Cadillac of grapefruit was bound for the junkyard?

Grandma and "Sex and the City"

Modern farmers who grow grapefruit have to be a special breed. That's because the grapefruit, under the best of circumstances, is a tough sell in America, where speed and convenience are everything.

Eating a grapefruit, even a seedless one, requires elbow grease. First slice it in half. Then use a special curved knife to liberate the fleshy segments. You'll probably need a tiny spoon to lift segments into your mouth. But be careful. Dig with too much enthusiasm and you will squirt juice across the room. Speaking of juice, how do you get the last drop? Pick up the grapefruit half, lean back and squeeze the juice between your jaws. It's effective, though it's likely you'll end up with juice on your chin.

"We did a study and found that only the pineapple is considered a more difficult fruit to eat," says Dan Richey, whose 5,000-acre Riverfront Groves in Vero Beach is among the largest grapefruit producers in Florida.

Then there's the social implications of eating a grapefruit.

"The grapefruit is a fruit many people associate with Grandma," says Richey, who recently served as chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. "When some people think about grapefruit, they imagine something lying on Grandma's doily with perhaps a cherry on top."

In fact, that's how many people once ate their Duncans back in the Donna Reed and June Cleaver era, when Dad went to the office and Mom stayed home and wore high heels and pearls in the kitchen and didn't mind slaving a half-hour preparing grapefruit.

Not these days. "Even Pop-Tarts aren't convenient enough for younger people," says Richey, whose family grew Duncan grapefruits a century ago but now produces only seedless white marshes and ruby reds. "A Pop-Tart, to be eaten correctly, usually is toasted first. That eliminates the Pop-Tart from the category we call "dashboard food,' something you can eat on the go."

It may sound like Richey is crying in his grapefruit juice, but he's not. Though the grapefruit industry gets smaller every year - in the past decade, state acreage shrunk nearly 40 percent to 89,000 - it remains about a $1-billion business in Florida. People still eat grapefruit, after all, and even drink grapefruit juice. The overseas market is booming. The Japanese, in fact, are in love with grapefruit.

"They even bathe in the juice," says Richey, who ships most of his crop to Japan. "They even buy grapefruit-scented panty hose."

Grapefruit growers, however, learn to avoid overconfidence. A few years ago, not long after millions of Americans were losing weight by following "the grapefruit diet," and growers were putting more trees into the ground, scientists discovered that grapefruit juice and certain medicines, notably antidepressants and cholesterol-reducing drugs, might not mix. It was bad news for an industry that depends on an older clientele.

Thank goodness for sex.

One night, the amorous women on the erstwhile HBO series Sex and the City were lamenting their bad luck with men. Instead of drowning their sorrows in their customary cosmopolitans, they gulped down a new concoction, something they called a "ruby." A ruby is vodka mixed with fresh juice from a ruby red grapefruit.

It would be exaggerating to say grizzled grapefruit men in Florida wept with gratitude, but only slightly.

The citrus industry launched a $3-million marketing campaign called "Sass in a Glass," advertising the joys of grapefruit consumption on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and in magazines InStyle and Vogue.

It was hard to imagine: Grapefruit juice-swilling hipsters who aren't drawing Social Security! Wearing black leather! Grapefruit, the nectar of Soho! Grapefruit eaters having torrid sex! What do you say now, Grandma Doily?

Quite a campaign it was. But somewhere, A.L. Duncan, grapefruit magnate of Dunedin, must have been spinning in his grave.

Fruit trees squeezed out

Pick a grapefruit. Slice it open. If the flesh is pale, and a few seeds come out - officially a grapefruit with a half-dozen seeds or less is considered "seedless" - what you probably have is a white marsh. If the flesh is a lush crimson, seedless or with a few seeds, you've got a red variety.

If you open a large yellow grapefruit and seeds come tumbling out like clowns from a Volkswagen, you are staring at a Duncan.

Of course, when that particular grapefruit came to Florida, in about 1840, it wasn't called a Duncan. It was just plain grapefruit, a novelty fruit that had been created a century before by somebody who bred a sweet orange with a strange, enormous, almost monstrous grapefruitlike fruit known as the pomelo.

The father of Florida grapefruit, Odet Philippe, got seeds from the new hybrid in the Caribbean, possibly Jamaica, and planted them in Safety Harbor, in what is known as Philippe Park today. Modesty didn't come easily to Philippe, who called himself a count and told people he had once been Napoleon's surgeon. He named his Pinellas plantation St. Helena, after the island where Napoleon died in exile. He named his sailing vessel The Ney because that's what Napoleon called his.

"He most likely was not a doctor or a count," says Vance Perkey, the assistant park supervisor and amateur historian. "He probably didn't know Napoleon."

However, he did plant those grapefruit seeds, and later sold his crop to soldiers stationed at Tampa's Fort Brooke. As west Florida's population swelled, so did the citrus groves. A few miles west, in Dunedin, L.B. Skinner planted orange and grapefruit seeds furiously. In the 1880s, A.L. Duncan, a lawyer from Wisconsin, traveled to Dunedin to invest in the new citrus industry. He liked the business, stayed, and worked for Skinner.

Duncan, according to some histories, improved fruit production. Trees grown from seed often took a decade to produce. Duncan grafted branches from already mature grapefruit trees to mature sour orange trees. Within a few years, those trees were putting out delicious grapefruit, ready for shipping.

Thus the Duncan was born.

"The groves were everywhere," says Vinnie Luisi, director of the Dunedin Historical Society and Museum. Skinner's famous Milwaukee Grove, the largest, stretched about 10 city blocks. Freezes, progress and the need for housing changed everything. Skinner's grove - every grove in Dunedin - is gone. But Duncan trees remain in back yards here and there.

"Hate to eat anything else," says 78-year-old Norma Lockhart, admiring her old tree on Idlewild Drive. "I don't mind seeds. What's wrong with a few seeds?"

Still has fans

Imagine visiting a video store and asking to rent what you have been told is the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. The young clerk says, "Well, Citizen Kane is in black-and-white. Nobody wants to watch black-and-white films anymore. But we've got a nice selection of Will Ferrell movies. Have you seen Anchorman?"

Maybe comparing Citizen Kane with Duncan grapefruits is over the top. Over in Terra Ceia, in Manatee County, Ben Tillett is both amused and sad when customers worry more about the possibility of a seed than the quality of the fruit. His kin have grown and sold citrus for eight decades. His fruit stand, hidden among cabbage palms on U.S. 19, is called the Citrus Place.

He is 73 and lives and breathes citrus. He can identify an orange, a grapefruit, a tangerine, a lemon variety at a glance. And he is happy to walk through his groves with a sharp knife, sampling fruit.

"The business has really changed over the years," he says. Decades ago, families dropped by after Thanksgiving and ordered baskets of fruit to mail to relatives as Christmas presents. Now only the elderly ship fruit.

"Young people don't even like to take the time to peel an orange," Tillett says. He sells all kinds of oranges, but he also offers citrus already peeled. His most popular oranges are seedless navels and seedless honeybells.

He sells a variety of grapefruits. In his bins are seedless white marsh and ruby red - and Duncans. He believes he is the last of the growers in the Tampa Bay area to regularly sell Duncans.

"I do it for the old-timers," he says. Some drive miles - even 100 miles round-trip - for a sack of Duncans.

Tillett's wife, Vera, occasionally persuades a new customer to try a Duncan. She tells them about rich taste but also warns about the seeds. She has created new fans of Duncans that way.

"But you know what?" she says. "Other day I got a letter in the mail. It was full of seeds. Somebody didn't like those Duncans I sold them, I guess."

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

Special thanks to Philippe Park, Safety Harbor Museum, Dunedin Historical Society, Jene's Tropicals, Florida Department of Citrus.

WANT A SAMPLE?

Jene's Tropicals will host a citrus-tasting festival, including Duncan grapefruit, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Sunday at 6830 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. For information, call (727) 344-1668.

[Last modified January 28, 2005, 09:56:24]


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