Life without lemons would be sour indeed

May 22, 2017

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, the old adage says. That's good advice, but there's an assumption underlying it that ought to be challenged.

What's wrong with lemons? A life without them -- from the culinary perspective -- would be sour indeed. 

I came to this deep, philosophical revelation while lounging at the backyard of some friends who live in California. Just a few feet from where I sat was their lemon tree, drooping with fist-sized fruit. It occurred to me that even those of us who aren't lucky enough to have them growing outside our door tend to take lemons for granted -- we shouldn't.

Lemons are arguably the most versatile of fruits, certainly among the citrus family. In addition to their role of food preparation, lemons have a host of other uses. They've been employed to treat epilepsy, as a bleaching agent, and even in witchcraft.

And in the kitchen, lemons are no less adaptable. They can perk up a sauce, liven fresh vegetables, add interest and perfume to desserts; or, when their zest is rubbed around the edge of the glass, spell the difference between a perfect martini and one that is only near-perfect.

No wonder lemons have been cultivated for thousands of years!

Tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings reveal that the Egyptians prized lemon trees, which are native to Southeast Asia where references to them can be found in some of the oldest of oriental literature. From there, they branched out to the rest of Asia, Persia, the Mid-East, Africa, and southern Europe.

So, when it comes to lemons, I agree with noted California chef Bradley Ogden when he says: "When life gives you lemons: cook with them."