Friday, January 4, 2008

Joy of Lemons


Our backyard Meyer lemon tree is in its second year of growth. Or maybe its third year since some growers somewhere nurtured it before we bought it at Buchanan's in the Houston Heights. Last year, we managed to grow two lemons. This year only one. There were lots of flowers in spring, but most fell to the ground. We shall have to think of some grand purpose for this particular lemon that hung on by itself throughout the long hot summer well into fall and now winter.

I first heard of Meyer lemons from a library customer. I had no idea you could grow your own here in Houston until she brought a bag of them to the library years ago. They were the biggest lemons I'd ever seen, looking more like grapefruits in size. Meyer lemons have such a mild flavor you could almost eat them as hand fruit. The nicest thing is, she brought those lemons to us because she was pleased with our services. We found an obscure short story in full text for her on the internet when she did not have time to request it from inter-library loan. She was a teacher who needed it ASAP. This was well before the days of Google, when the internet was still not widely used. And she continued to bring us lemons once a year for many years. And now we sometimes talk about growing lemons when we see each other. Her tree dropped a lot of its flowers this year too.

Small public libraries are like that; we really get to know our customers. To thank "the lemon lady", I wrote a haiku inspired by the sight of a bowl full of her Meyer lemons, Here it is:

Homegrown lemons, big
as suns, tumble from their bowl
but find no escape.

And before I end this post, one good read with at least a little lemon flavor: The Lemon Jelly Cake (first published in 1952, reprinted as a Prairie State Book by the University of Illinois in 1998) by Madeline Babcock Smith. It is a delightful story of small town life at the turn of the century in Illinois, published when its author was age 65. I think of it as Betsy-Tacy and Tib for grownups, because part of the story features friendship between young girls. Also important to the story is a mother/wife/wonderful baker named Kate Bradford who feels stifled my small town life. She philosophizes that "Life is in layers. Everybody is in his own layer and can't get out." Her limitations are further expressed when she says "Sometimes I wonder if the record of my years will only be written on the labels of glasses of jelly and jams and cans of fruit."

Back to lemons. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus planted the first lemon trees in the United States. The United States is now the third largest producer of lemons, after Argentina and Spain. Meyer lemons are a hybrid originally from China. A good book for lemon aficionados is Lemons: Growing, Cooking, Crafting by Kate Chynoweth and Elizabeth Woodson.

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