If you were conducting a religious history course in a grocery's produce section, which fruit would you use to illustrate your lesson? An apple? A fig? In her compulsively readable addition to Reaktion's Edible series of trim, single-subject books, Bellingham journalism instructor Toby Sonneman makes a convincing case for the lemon.
The trouble with series such as Edible is there's always bound to be a bum book in the bunch. With nearly 30 authors who've contributed overviews of foods including soup, olives and caviar, it's almost certain a few of them won't adapt to the fact-driven formula of condensed history, photographs and recipes with remarkable grace. But Sonneman's Lemon: A Global History, the subject of an author talk at Elliott Bay Book Co. this weekend, is a standout. In common parlance, it's an un-lemon.
Sonneman doesn't let that expression go unexplained, of course: Until the 20th century, California growers struggled to master lemon-growing. Their unsatisfactory product - tasteless and costly compared to its Mediterranean competitors - may have inspired the sneering use of "lemon" to describe a faulty product.
But Sonneman's tale begins long before the European colonization of North America. She traces the lemon back to its genetic ancestor, the citron, first documented in a Hindu religious text dating back to 800 BC, although archaeologists have uncovered citron seeds from thousands of years earlier. The citron was repulsively dry and bitter, but ancients were infatuated with its color, medicinal properties and, above all, its scent.
The citron wended its way into Buddhist ceremonies and Islamic writings, but no other religious group embraced the citron with the ferocity of the Jews. The citron, or etrog in Hebrew, became the primary symbol of Sukkot. Since the holiday couldn't be celebrated without an etrog, Jews planted the citrus tree throughout the Diaspora and paid hefty sums for imported fruit. "In effect, the Jews' annual desire for citrons sparked the great Mediterranean citrus culture," Sonneman writes.
But it was Muslim Arabs who propelled the crop to glory. "They swept the fruit along with them wherever they went, filling gardens and courtyards in Spain, Sicily and North Africa with the scent of citrus blossoms as they sowed the seeds of an agricultural revolution," Sonneman writes.
While art and architecture are a more visible manifestation of the Arabs' influence on the European landscape, their lemon trees reshaped the region's cooking. In Sicily, where conquering Normans rejected Islam but dressed in Arab robes and kept harems, lemon was liberally added to chicken dishes and icy desserts. According to Sonneman, it's still fashionable in Sicily to pick a lemon from a tree and eat it unpeeled.
Lemons were considered extraordinarily special in northern Europe, where artists put them in the forefront of their still-life paintings and nobles set them on their feast tables. In seventeenth-century London, a single 'unwasht' lemon cost as much as an average laborer might earn in three days.
Although the lemon's reputation was further boosted when physicians realized it could prevent scurvy -- a maritime scourge so rampant that 1400 of the 2000 crewmen involved with Sir George Anson's 1740 circumnavigation attempt died from it -- it might have remained an expensive indulgence in the new world if not for the Shakers.
In addition to abstaining from sex and making brooms, the Shakers also practiced teetotalism. They needed a delicious, non-alcoholic beverage, so they bought lemons for their U.S. colonies. And as the battle for Prohibition became more pitched, lemonade fever spread to other Christian sects. In the 1870s, Rutherford B. Hayes' wife was nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy" because of her devotion to the drink.
Sonneman's story strays beyond the spiritual. Her chronicle covers lemon fiend Frank Meyer, who walked from Holland to Spain so he could tour citrus groves; modern lemon-growing methods and lemon-scented dishwashing soap. But she almost always returns to the fruit's under-appreciated ethereal qualities. She closes the book with a quote from Pablo Neruda, who called the lemon "a yellow goblet of miracles."
The illustrated talk at Elliott Bay Books is scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m.