Lemon: A Global History by Toby Sonneman
Toby Sonneman is passionate about lemons. When faced with debilitating migraine headaches she stopped eating different foods one-by-one, in hope of discovering the cause. After dramatically restricting her diet, lemons were the ingredient she longed for the most. So Sonneman vowed never to take them for granted again.
But past the introduction this book isn’t about its author at all, which is a refreshing change and may partially explain why Lemon was so popular with my Food Lit club. After reading more than 42 other food lit books over the past three-ish years, we have realized that while memoir and creative non-fiction can include elements of each other, a single book cannot be both at the same time. Either the personal narrative competes with that of other people and events, making the author’s self reflection appear superfluous and heavy-handed, or the details of those same people and events get in the way of the author’s own story, which bogs down the pace and continuity of her monograph.
Instead, Toby Sonneman has written an engaging and well illustrated history of the lemons themselves. An “ancient natural cross-breed” of citron and mandarin, two of the three naturally occurring wild citrus species that originated around twenty million years ago, lemons first came to the western world with Muslim Arabs as they traveled from India and Persia, “filling gardens and courtyards in Spain, Sicily and North Africa”. The lemon was not the first citrus to gain popularity in the Mediterranean however, that title goes to the citron, which was (and still is) considered sacred to Jews, who discovered it in Babylonia and then introduced it to Palestine, where the armies of Alexander the Great brought it with them to Europe.
Sonneman further traces the development of the fruit into modern times, giving detailed reports about its cultivation and culinary traditions in Sicily, throughout Europe and on into the United States. The book is sprinkled with vignettes of the men responsible for much of the written history on citrus that the author draws from and it is fascinating to learn the background of how we know so much of what we know. She also covers the nutritional benefits of lemons - how they solved a centuries old problem causing the death of more than 2/3 of the sailors on many voyages until 1795 and then became a health drink and beauty aid in the twentieth century.
Lemon is a quick and fun read. It is also one of the best sort of books that inspire further investigation: Sonneman’s vivid descriptions of paradisal gardens along the lemon’s historical trail have enticed me to visit Sicily’s Lemon Riviera, Granada’s Alhambra Palace and eventually tackle a trip to the middle east in search of citrus trees. For starters, I’ll be be researching a variety of new and old Middle Eastern cookbooks and checking my local library for Giovanni Batista Ferrari’s Hesperides.