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When Life Gives You Lemons

The whole notion of life handing you lemons is such a crock. Yeah, life can be acerbic. Puckering, even. But leave the poor lemon alone.

Think about it. Is there any other fruit—citrus or otherwise—that multitasks quite like a lemon? Is there anything in your kitchen that can pull off half the stuff lemons can? Can chocolate marinate your flank steak? Can blueberries rescue that bland fillet of sole?

Lemons can tart up  a blah dish with just a squirt, fall into formation as a sunny centerpiece with a moment’s notice, vanquish a hot, humid afternoon’s thirst, and glam up a homely cake, morphing it into something drop-dead sexy with nothing more than a drizzle of citrus-inflected syrup. Try doing any of that with an indolent cantaloupe or those prissy apricots.

And let’s not forget the miracle of lemon and booze. Most classic cocktails would never rise above the mundane without a dose of lemon’s sprightly edge. Even James Bond would have been just another middle-age cop in a car if he hadn’t insisted on plunking a large piece of lemon peel in that ridiculous Vesper martini.

I don’t know about you, but I’m of the religion where anything that can improve a martini as well as a cake deserves some ardent genuflecting.

I learned to be a lemon acolyte in my grandmother’s kitchen. She was a short, compact woman with a sweet smile that belied a tart tongue—a refugee from Germany who saw the citrus trees of Southern California as a personal housewarming gift from God. “It was a sign,” she once confided in me, convinced that the welcoming abundance of little oblong fruits was proof that she’d made the right decision to drag her husband and young daughter from their new home near relatives in New York to the cultural desert of Los Angeles.

On her windowsill above the sink she always kept three or four fragrant lemons, plucked from a wayward branch on her neighbor’s large, unruly tree. To her, lemons were the solution to just about any crisis, culinary or otherwise. She would rub lemon juice on the silver to keep it shiny and drip lemon juice on tablecloth stains after Sabbath dinner. Germs in the sink? Eradicate with lemon juice and a stiff brush. A bad cough or sore throat? Gargle with lemon juice, honey, and warm water. Half a lemon would be ceremoniously squeezed over the filling just before she positioned the top crust on her famous apple pie. And my mother says no one in the family ever figured out how my grandmother got her matzoh balls so light and fluffy, but my brother swears he once saw her add a little lemon juice.

I seem to have followed in her lemon-scented footsteps. Every Monday I feel compelled to bring some incarnation of baked goods into the office for coworkers. I’ve produced every iteration of brownies I can find, experimented with dozens of cookie recipes, and tweaked all manner of coffee cakes and muffins. My coworkers say they love them all, but nothing produces quite the slavering worship as when I bring in something sweet-tart and citrusy. The instant the perfume of lemon-ginger scones or lemon-blueberry pound cake wafts over the room, everyone collectively sighs in anticipation.

So let’s rethink this whole notion that lemons are synonymous with worthless, nonworking clunkers—thank you, Lemon Law. (Maybe they should rename that silly statute after something truly useless. “Rutabaga Law” sort of has a ring to it.) Lemons should be adored. Venerated, even. And the next time life hands them to you? Be grateful.—Candy Sagon

Best Lemon Recipes


Rosemary Lemon Drop

Thyme, Lemon and Sea Salt Shortbread
Angel Hair Pasta with Lemon Cream Sauce

Citrus Risotto
Sole a la Meuniere
Ina Garten’s Lemon Cake

Meyer Lemon Curd
Lemon Souffle
Lemon Drizzle Cake