Somewhere I read that Ruth Reichl does not like Meyer lemons. Now I think of her every time I see them or buy them, and I buy them every time I see them. I love Meyer lemons.
Ruth Reichl’s feelings are that a Meyer lemon is (my words here) a pussy lemon. It’s not tart enough, not lemony enough, so what’s the point? Why does everyone make a big deal about these lemon-orange hybrids?
I tasted my first Meyer lemon not long after moving to California in early 2000. I moved out there dreaming of becoming a wine writer in Napa Valley, but instead I became a pop music critic, an unpaid hobby I subsidized with a job shelving books one county over, at the central branch of Sonoma County Public Library in Santa Rosa.
Meyer lemons grow well in northern California. A fellow library employee had a tree in her yard, and she’d bring big paper sacks straining under the weight of the Meyer lemons they held. I’d bring those sacks home, because they were free, and make their contents into lemonade using this extremely complicated procedure I’d read about in Cook’s Illustrated. They preached slicing the lemons, tossing them with sugar, and mashing the hell out of them before straining out the resulting sticky juice. It’s a good idea—you get more of the flavorful essential oils from the zest that way—but all of the pulp gets discarded, and the pulp is my favorite part. It’s the lemonade telling you it’s the real deal.
My first go-around with this lemonade technique, I had no idea the free lemons I was mashing up were Meyer lemons. But I noticed they had a slight herbal smell, and their pretty yellow-orange peels were thinner that what I was accustomed to. It perplexed and delighted me. The resulting lemonade I took to mixing with Pabst Blue Ribbon to make my own splendid shandy, something I liked drinking after the long runs I’d take on gravel roads crisscrossing Sonoma’s rolling stands of madrona and eucalyptus trees. I was 23 and had very few obligations in life. Everything lay ahead of me, little pockets of promise to hunt like Easter eggs.
I later quit my library job and moved away from Sonoma County, then California altogether. I left the land of free hybrid citrus and hills stretched on the horizon like big, golden sleeping dogs. I had a greater sense of purpose, more responsibility, and mounting debt to pay off from overindulgence in my pop music criticism hobby.
Now, a kid and a husband and a dozen jobs later, just handling a Meyer lemon triggers endorphins in my brain. I equate that flowery perfume with potential, with freedom, with can after silver can of Pabst poured into a sweaty glass half-filled with the most exquisite lemonade I’ll ever make. I don’t blame Ruth Reichl for getting peeved with the fuss people make over Meyer lemons, but I’ll never pass up an opportunity to go past-tripping when I spot an overpriced bag of these rare beauties in my shitty Midwest grocery store. I’ll juice them and zest them, yeah, but mainly I just want to have them, my little lemon Easter eggs, more evocative of a place and a headspace than any photo could ever be.
That Reichl bit was from Smithsonian Magazine, a transcript of her and Michael Pollan dining out and chatting about the state of food. Smithsonian made the Meyer lemon bit a pull quote, of course, and that’s how I saw it. I didn't read the article, which struck me as fodder for fanboy/fangirls. You can read the very long article here, and if you do, I promise I won’t make fun of you. I got my Meyer lemons, you got your Reichl/Pollan worship. Ruth R.’s Meyer lemon part is very close to the end.