When Life Hands You Lemons…You Eventually Learn to Love Lemons

The pandemic opened our eyes to a lot of things. For Peter Flax, it was the value of a culinary treasure trove in his own backyard

I ignored the tree for years. It occupied the back corner of my yard, unshapely and unappreciated and bursting with fruit. If the neighborhood kids wanted to throw up a lemonade stand, they knew they had carte blanche to grab a dozen without asking.

What can I say? Lemons never excited me. I’ve had previous SoCal homes where I had an orange or avocado tree out back, and I embraced the luxury to walk barefooted into the yard to source fresh-squeezed juice or homemade guacamole. Meanwhile, lemons cost 59 cents at Ralphs and are as sexy as a saltshaker.

But the pandemic changed a lot of things. I converted my garage into an office and a legit gym. I bought pants with an elastic waistband and wore them during important meetings. I started walking my overweight yellow Lab like I was her personal trainer. And I started cooking with lemons. A lot.

There’s no doubt that being homebound during the pandemic, even for those lucky enough to have good health and a stable job, has not exactly been fun. Kind of boring, actually. As the inventory of decent content on Netflix declined and my teenagers permanently emigrated to their rooms, I had to get creative to avoid evening ennui. Along the way, I discovered one upside of this new life—an existence without commuting and a relatively rigid work schedule: I suddenly had way more time to be more mindful about what I eat. I had more flexibility to shop for fresh food and prepare it than I did in the past. I began creating a daily dinner routine that was more ritualistic and involved than it’d been for years.

This is how the lemon tree entered my life. It was a May afternoon and I bought home this glistening filet of wild-caught salmon from the farmer’s market. I whisked together some Dijon mustard and avocado oil and walked out to the tree. I was a barbarian back in those early days; I pulled down a huge lemon hard enough that several innocent fruit rained to the dirt. I squeezed out twice as much juice as my gut said to, and the result was like an extremely minor miracle. There was a brightness that maybe I’d been too busy to notice before.

It took off from there. I started planning multicourse meals around lemons. I made salads with baby arugula, Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings, EVOO, and lemon juice. I dutifully churned lemon and basil risotto. I blanched haricot vert and tossed them with French butter, sea salt, and lemon juice. I charred large shrimp on the barbecue, then coated them with lemon and oregano. I tossed farfalle with a shallot-heavy lemon cream sauce. (I guess this is a fine time to admit I’m not big on desert.)

I watch cooking shows with my boys and I’ve been a solid home cook for decades, but I never really thought so explicitly about the nature of acidity before the start of my lemon love affair. I became attuned to all the ways lemons could add clarity and contrast to so many dishes that I previously had relied on seasoning or fat to elevate. I began reading blog posts and food-mag stories about lemons, and then was squeezing lemon into fresh tomato sauce. My wife doesn’t know it, but I added a dash to the mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. It was kind of like discovering salt in your middle ages.

I won’t bore you with all the details of the lemon-zest phase, which remains an ongoing delight. All I can say is that I have laid awake in bed thinking about the pork tenderloins I rubbed with salt, olive oil, and zest. The pandemic can drive us to strange places.

It was a citrusy culinary journey, no doubt, but it was more than that. Over the past year, our modest bungalow multitasked as home, office, and prison, someplace I might not leave—save for the brisk three-mile dog walks—for a few days straight. So discovering such a transcendent food source right under my nose—something I’d ignored for years—took on an emotional quality.

Even now, the tree continues to amaze me. No matter how much I pick and use—two or three lemons a day for weeks without a break—I can’t come close to exhausting the supply. Not once have I needed to break out a ladder to get fruit from the uppermost branches. It requires little irrigational love like so many other plants in the yard. Kids still sneak into the yard to supply lemonade stands. I even have learned how to pick the fruit—twisting it a few rotations until it gently releases from a branch.

I walk out in the yard with bare feet and the light on my iPhone blazing. I bring my bright yellow bounty into the kitchen and slice the fruit open on a cutting board. The scent fills the room like music. I am, quite simply, at home.

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