The source of lemons is unknown but it’s pretty much agreed they were grown in Assam (a region in northeast India), northern Burma or China. Somewhere along the line it became a hybrid between the bitter orange (sour orange) and citron, which is your basic granddaddy of the citrus family, with its thick bumpy rind and sour flavor.
The fruit has come a long way since then, which makes it one of the world’s favourite citrus. Arab traders brought lemons to the Middle East and Africa sometime afterwards as it made its way to southern Italy around 200 B.C. and has been cultivated in Egypt. Citron paved the way for all citrus since it came in the Mediterranean around the late first century BC. Nowadays, the citron, which contains very little pulp or juice, is usually baked and invisibly into fruitcakes.
Slow to catch on, for over a millennium citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known from the Mediterranean basin. Lemons, though commonplace and abundant now, were actually rare in ancient Rome, prized by the elite, and represented high social standing. (So if someone called you a lemon back then, it was probably a compliment.)
At first, lemons were not widely grown for food or seasoning but largely an ornamental plant, like berries, until about the 10th century. The Arabs introduced the lemon into Spain in the 11th century, and by then they’d become a common crop in the Mediterranean area. And traveled with the Crusades throughout their journeys, which makes its way to England in the early 16th century. The name”lemon” first appeared around 1350-1400, from the old French word limon, and was Anglicized in England. The Italian term limone dates back to the Arabic and Persian word limun.
Because of Christopher Columbus, who brought them to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) in 1493, these new trees which produced strange yellow tart fruit, spread across the New World but were still used mainly as an ornamental and medicinal plant because of their very sour flavor. (Apparently no one had figured out how to make lemon meringue pie yet).
While foodie president Thomas Jefferson boasted over one thousand fruit trees in his orchards, there’s absolutely no record he ever experimented with citrus, although he must have encountered them in his travels to France, but the Virginia climate simply did not lend itself to citrus. However, lemons were being grown in California from the mid-1700s, and in tropical Florida by the 1800s, when they became a hit in cooking and flavoring.
Though lemon flavored puddings and custards are enjoyed for centuries, our favorite lemon meringue pie as we know it today is a 19th-century item. The earliest recorded recipe has been attributed to a Swiss baker called Alexander Frehse. There is also speculation that a British botanist may have concocted it about 1875, but whoever guessed it up sure did us all a favor. One of America’s favorite pies, it still wows us to this day, with its tart custard base and light fluffy meringue topping.
Over 200 or so varieties of the lemon have evolved over the past three centuries. The Meyer lemon is named after Frank N. Meyer, who introduced it to the USA in 1908, after he discovered it rising in Peking, China and brought back to the U.S.. Unlike regular sugars, Meyer lemons are not selected green and treated after harvesting but are picked when fully ripe. They bear fruit yearlong, are generally less sour and their pulp is orange-colored.
Many of us learned in grammar school that lemons and limes averted a disease called scurvy, which Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered in 1747, urging the British Royal Navy to implement to be able to save countless sailors. (Hence the nickname”limey” to get a Brit, which sounded better than”lemony”). This opened the door to the value of Vitamin C and its significance in nutrition.
It’s hard to imagine life without the lemon. But you enjoy them, their bright yellow color, tangy flavor and aromatic odor enhance our lives in many various ways, and if you’re fortunate enough to live in a place where they develop, you can indulge for virtually pennies. So, as the old expression goes,”When life hands you Raccoon Poop…”