Urban Legends – The Hungarian Orange

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1950’s,Hungary. The land is dotted with the yellow of lemons, the orange of, well, oranges and the white of cotton. This is no legend, this is the dream the leaders of the country dreamt, and the agricultural workers of the country tried to realize.


Do you remember the scene from A tanú (The Witness) when Comrade Bástya first tastes the new Hungarian orange? It was a bit more yellow and a bit more bitter, but it was ours. And who cared it was actually a lemon.


If you think that this scene was just a brilliant piece of writing, you’re wrong. From 1949 to the mid-50s, the southern part of theGreat Plainswas home to a major agricultural experiment. Although the terrain was not the least suitable for producing tropical fruits and cotton, lemon and orange trees and cotton fields were planted to get round exporting the goods from the imperialists.

As Wikipedia tells us, the ‘successful cultivation of cotton requires a long frost-free period, plenty of sunshine, and a moderate rainfall, usually from 600 to 1200 mm’. But the agricultural think tanks of 1949 had no access to Wikipedia, and they also must have missed some geography classes that discussed the completely different climatic featuresHungary can offer. So in 1949 it was decided that this fair country of ours will cater for her own cotton requirements. Oh, and that the usual 160-170 days from planting to harvesting should be reduced by 40 days. Motivated ‘volunteers’ flocked to the center of cotton production, the Industrial Cotton Cultivation Company was established, and seeds were imported fromBulgaria and theSoviet Union. Soon there were 46 different types of cotton bred by the ICCC. However, the weather turned nasty, and the great cotton project was nipped in the bud.


Lemon and orange cultivation was shorter-lived, but way more spectacular. In the winter of 1956, to lift the spirits of the disillusioned people, Népszabadság published a short piece on the lemon situation in the Botanical Garden inSzeged. A single, 60-year old lemon tree bore   50 lemons. The size of these lemons was said to be exceeding that of imported fruits; the new Hungarian lemons weighted200 grams each and were juicy and almost completely seedless. Although the article was also very optimistic about the orange and tangerine trees in the botanical garden, no market was ever flooded by home-grown citrus fruits.


So what fruit has this massive failure of agricultural absurdity borne? First of all, it’s given us further proof that however hard you work on something, if the original idea disregards reality completely, you’ll be screwed. More importantly, this megalomaniac scientific experience has become a part of popular culture (think The Witness or the weekly Magyar Narancs), ridiculing the notion that the ‘made inHungary’ label in itself makes everything a little bit bigger and better.

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