We sometimes forget some of the simpler things that once brought a refreshing pause. A cold pitcher of lemonade could do that. My dad, who spent practically every evening playing cards before the arrival of television, would make himself a pitcher of lemonade, especially during the long, hot summers of the ‘50s. We had no air-conditioning. Having every window opened was quite important if we wished to remain somewhat cool, and it seemed that each evening in the hours after dark, a southerly breeze began to gently flow from the direction of the Habenicht’s orchard that lay across the road. Not having air-conditioning made us no worse off, and we could not miss it since we did not know of it.
Making a pitcher of lemonade is one of the few things, if not the only thing, I can remember my dad making in our kitchen. At about mid-evening he would get up from his chair at our kitchen table and remove the only ice tray from our refrigerator, cut a lemon in half, and pressed every ounce of juice it possessed on our glass lemon reamer. (No respectful kitchen was without one.) Then, seeds and tailings and all, were thrown into a water pitcher. Adding but a minimal amount of sugar, he filled the pitcher with water and ice and set it at his place on the table. My dad had been among the first to embrace the advent of a Formica kitchen table, consequently, how much the cold pitcher sweated did not matter with this marvelous invention. Stirring it occasionally with a wooden spoon, he enjoyed his glasses of lemonade as he continued playing cards.
Lemonade is one drink that has not changed in the last thousand years. Perhaps even as long as life has been handing out lemons. Maybe the advent of soft drinks caused us to forget the simpler tastes of a good lemonade. On a hot, steaming summer afternoon, nothing can quench a thirst better than a tall, icy-cold, glass of homemade lemonade. Yet this romantic American notion can often, quite literally, go sour. For all the effort to make a fresh lemonade, it frequently results in something too harsh, too sweet, or maybe just too watery. Very often its flavor is thin, and the proportions of lemon and sugar are wrong.
Throwing the halves of lemons into the pitcher may prove to be too much of a good thing for some. The skin can inject too many aromatic oils. Nevertheless, experiments mashing lemon slices with sugar produced some favorable results in bruising the skins as they release pleasant aromatic oils into the drink. Lemonade is technically a juice cocktail, not a juice. This is because it contains not only lemon juice but is primarily composed of it. Yet, some even call it unhealthy and recommend it not be regularly consumed because it requires sugar to sweeten – duh?
Food researchers have discovered why lemonade really hits the spot. It seems that sour or tart drinks stimulate our salivary glands, which provide relief to the feeling we associate with being tired and dehydrated. That is quite remarkable when one thinks about it. The postwar years of the ‘50s were quite stressful. Americans were building bomb shelters, and I often thought about what it was going to be like to see Russian army trucks coming up from San Antonio. (We lived on the San Antonio highway.) Perhaps we should have drunk it more often.
The exact origin of the lemons itself is not easy to ascertain, but recent fossilized leaves found in China prove lemons have been around for some eight million years. Thanks to chronicles written of 10th century Egyptian life and Jewish books we know that the medieval Jewish community in Cairo consumed and traded bottles of sugary lemon juice well into the 1300s. Lemonade, however, did not appear in Europe until the 1600s. Street vendors first began selling lemonade in Paris. It became so popular and fashionable by 1676 that the vendors incorporated and formed a union. Some authorities even claimed it helped fend off the plague, which in some instances was killing the two thirds of the populations of some cities. With statistics like that, sales soared.
A British chemist, Joseph Priestley, invented an apparatus for making carbonated water. Johann Schweppe, a German jeweler, perfected and bottled lemonade. By the 1700s the sparkling drink had made its way to the American colonies. Who could have ever imagined George Washington sitting on the front porch of his beloved Mount Vernon sipping lemonade? By 1830 Schweppes bottled, fizzy lemonade had practically destroyed the lemonade stands in Europe, and during England’s Victoria era, a women’s temperance movement hailed lemonade as an alternative to booze. President Rutherford B. Hayes bought into that theory and promptly banned alcohol from the White House. His wife became known as Lemonade Lucy.
In the 1800s both the availability of ice and circuses contributed to the popularity of lemonade. A circus midget having found life had dealt him a cruel blow, supposedly coined the famous phrase, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But it was also attributed to an actor, Marshall Pinckney Wilder in 1915 and a writer by the name of Elbert Hubbard, wrote, “He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.” Still, others claim it was even uttered earlier and in 1909 that it appeared in the “Retailers Newspaper” Men’s Wear. Whichever it was, we know lemonade well.
For a classic pitcher for serving 6 to 8 (1 ½ qtrs.).
10-12 medium lemons, scrubbed well, halved pole to pole, then sliced thin.
1 ¼ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
5 cups cold water.
Mash lemons, sugar, and salt in large, deep bowl with a potato masher until lemons give up their juices, sugar is dissolved, and juice is thickened to syrup – about 4 minutes.
Pour half the lemon slices and syrup through a large sieve over a bowl.
Press on solids with masher to release as much liquid as possible.
Discard solids and transfer liquid to a pitcher.
Repeat until all lemon slices are processed.
Stir in water until blended.
Chill well and stir again before serving over ice.
By Mark Wieser