Lemons: A Personal History

Nonna loved lemons. Literally, anything to do with them, the flavour, the smell, everything. What memories could have been associated with them for her? I always wondered. Why did she love them so much? Growing up the youngest of 5 children, a daughter of Italian immigrants, there must have been something at her core which made her heart leap at the sight of those little yellow spheres.  I like to think it was memories of her childhood, growing up in Southern California, where lemon and orange trees are part of the natural landscape and where bright sunshine is expected on a daily basis, not a welcome surprise.

My grandmother and I always had an affinity with each other. Both youngest children, both contrary by nature and generally quite feisty, we spent summers together at my grandparents’ home in the Valley. I played cards, cooked (when she’d let me help) and ate, and generally tried to stay out of the way when she and my mother came to verbal fisticuffs.  Since her death a few years ago, I have been receiving items from my aunt which belonged to Nonna: a dress she made in 1945, little leather cowboy boots which were my mother’s when she was three years old, and an oil painting of a fat nude woman reclining (which now hangs in my dining room – it looks nicer than it sounds). But of all of these trinkets, worthless to anyone but me, her recipe for lemon curd is my most treasured. A simple newspaper cut-out, stained over the years by her continual return to it as a staple of her culinary repertoire. And, because the recipe requires one egg and two yolks, the remaining egg whites pointed to the obvious solution as to what to make with the curd: her most favourite dessert, lemon meringue pie.

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I was 10 the first time I made it with her. I don’t remember a huge amount of the experience, except that it was probably more stressful for her than it was for me. Whilst separating the eggs, I set an eggshell in the bowl and she nearly had a heart attack. I can now see why. It is crucial to point out here that I don’t even like this kind of pie. I dragged my feet when I made it with her 22 years ago and I sort of felt a bit draggy about it today. I didn’t see what the point of it was then, or now for that matter. But this little recipe has been sitting around my flat for 2 weeks now; I had to give it a go. There had to be something about it that she kept coming back to…

…And even with my culinary prowess of which normally I’m quite proud, a first attempt at this pie is not amazing. Don’t get me wrong, it looks beautiful on the top and I’m exceptionally proud of the base (shortbread), but the curd seems too runny and sharp.  How can this be? I followed the recipe to a tee, what is the trick that I don’t know about? Did I miss something? Should I cut back on the juice despite what it says? The recipe seems a bit simplistic to me but that cannot be it, otherwise she would have left notes on it, of that I am sure. But there is nothing there except the newsprint and unidentifiable brown stains.

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It can only be in her touch. It is said that food made with love tastes the best and perhaps it was her way of showing love. I joke that my family are a bit unsure over whether it was because she loved us she wanted to feed us, or rather that she loved food so much that she couldn’t bear to see it loved unequally by those she was feeding, so she continued to pile up our plates. But it cannot be denied that a memory of an event can outweigh the reality. I remember our joint-effort pie as a success but I don’t remember how it tasted. In a world where recipes are ubiquitous, this recipe, with its history, remains a treasured one which I shall make to remember, and maybe one day I will learn to love.

Post script: Upon allowing the pie to cool further (when I tried it, it was marginally warm), the sharpness settles and the curd in fact becomes less runny. Nonna would have been pleased to learn that the pie turned out to be, for those who tried it later, “bloody lovely”. I can see why she returned to it again and again, but I will stick with being contrary, and prefer the recipe in memory rather than action…

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