Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Mercilessly sour, a cruel joke of an orange, the subject of cliché, lemon is a staple of Mexican cooking right along with lime, cilantro, oregano and onion. When we were children, my brother, sister and I coveted the fruit, taking the unused halves from the kitchen counter, sprinkling salt over them and eating them while my mother cooked, while we watched television or sat outside on the porch mid-make-believe-game. When I was about 13, I learned another trick from a favorite cousin…sticking a saladito in the center of a cut lemon and sucking the juice out, getting the salt of the salted plum in a most delicious way.
As a child, I was keenly aware that my non-Latina friends found my love of salty “candy” odd. I couldn’t explain it – it was in my blood.
We loved lemons so much my mother planted a lemon tree in our side yard one year. We were anxious for those lemons to start growing. Imagine…all the lemons we wanted right in our own house, right outside our kitchen door, just like at our grandmother’s house! I watched that tree change from sapling to full grown tree, but only to face disappointment. The tree was fruitless, not a single lemon came, not even through the second season of maturity. We waited, waited some more, dying for our own lemons to suck on, to use, to indulge in. Still no fruit came.
A housekeeper, Elia, stood with us one afternoon and studied the tree, all of us wondering why the thing wouldn’t produce. She had an idea and immediately went into the house. We sat patiently beneath the leaves, looking upwards, the sun’s rays shining through to our bare toes.
Just as we began to give up the vigil, Elia returned with small items in her hands, a tiny doll missing a leg, a toy dog with no tail, a plastic necklace long abandoned, a colorful measuring cup chewed by a puppy. She placed them aside and pulled from her apron pocket a ball of twine and scissors. Carefully, she hung each of the items all through the tree like Christmas decorations. She told my mother in Spanish that we needed to fool the tree into thinking she was a productive tree, that once she felt the weight of the “fruit” on her branches, the need to give more would be triggered.
“A woman can produce milk if given a baby to love and to care for, if the baby is put to her breast to nurse, even if that baby isn’t hers,” Elia explained. “The weight, the need, the love, can bring milk.”
My mother agreed, promptly offering her own recall of such incidents back in her hometown in Mexico. She added, “The trick works for cows, goats, too.”
We were fascinated.
One morning months later, we woke and ran to check the tree, our now-usual routine. We couldn’t believe it, there were fruits sprouting among the leaves, hanging on the branches. Green fruits, small, tight within, bitter. A week later, they were still green, small, tight within, and bitter. We were troubled. Why weren’t the fruits turning into lemons? Elia chuckled and my mother figured out the problem. They were limes. Over our groans of dismay, Elia told us not to be sorry because limes were wonderful, too. Why with a little salt, they could be bitten into and chewed. I knew that to be true...limes were particularly good with tequila...I'd seen my parents use limes that way many times. During parties (of which there were many), we'd hang around the "bar" in the kitchen, taking the cut limes. Sure, true, the stinging bite at the end was the best part. Provided the limes had the salt.
Well, we didn’t get the ever-producing lemon tree, but we still got to enjoy our salty “candy” right outside the kitchen almost like we had imagined.
Today, M and I visited my grandmother, to check on her, to see that she had food, and to spend precious time with her and my equally-frail grandfather. M wore a pink sundress, carried her Hello Kitty pink purse (a special five-dollar bill tucked inside) and stomped around in her favorite pink-tinged, lightening shoes (they light up when she walks).
After lunch in the kitchen, my grandmother brought out a basket of lemons to make lemonade. I stayed seated at the table, flipping through old recipe books and watching as the two juiced the lemons, made sugar water, and stirred the ingredients together. M stood on a rickety stool with her wooden spoon while my grandmother directed each step of the process, talking softly, moving slowly. There wasn’t any music going, no television. Mama and Papa don’t have air-conditioning. The air was warmish, the scents of lunch still hung about, cotija cheese, liver and onions, chile, and one burnt tortilla.
When they were done, M beamed as she dipped a quarter-cup into the wide-mouthed pitcher to get lemonade all by herself into juice glasses. With my grandmother’s fragile hand on her elbow, she stepped off the stool and brought me a drink.
“For our guest,” Mama said.
“For our guest,” M repeated, smiling at me.
We three then sat at the table and had summer “tea,” lemon with sugar.
A lemon is an unexpected joy because it’s too sour to eat outright. How the fruit transforms itself when accompanied by salt or sugar or when you cook with it. The lemon tells me a tale of family, of summery closeness, a clash of hearts whether blood-related or not. The lemon tells me we can’t go it alone. Alone, we’ll remain fruitless, unproductive. Sour.
As I drove home this afternoon, M spoke to me of her lemonade and how she wanted to serve it up to her brothers, to her dad, just like we did today.
“For our guests,” she said, placing her hand on the jar of lemonade next to her, next to her purse. The heavy traffic didn't bother us, not one bit.