By Kathleen Marple Kalb
When life gives you lemons…
Turns out there’s a lot more to lemonade than juice and sugar, which is part of the reason historian Christian Shaw likes a glass after doing yard work in The Stuff of Murder. Christian, the director of the Unity, Connecticut, Historical Society, finds herself in the middle of a murder case when a fading movie star drops dead on a shoot in town – and ends up tracking the killer with her knowledge of historic household items. And the occasional break for lawn mowing and lemonade.
It’s a good choice for this household historian.
While people have been enjoying cold citrusy drinks since at least the tenth century, lemonade has picked up surprising resonance for a simple beverage.
Starting with the lemons. First, life hasn’t been giving us actual lemons all that long. We know there were citrons, and other kinds of citrus in Greek and Roman times…but there’s nothing that’s verifiably a lemon until the 12th century. The treat from the tenth-century, enjoyed by the Jewish community in Egypt, was probably a citron slushie. Yum.
There’s no record of the person who actually took lemons and made lemonade, but we can verify that it was first sold as a soft drink in Paris on August 20th, 1630. It was made with sparkling water, sweetened with honey (the New World cane sugar industry wasn’t in full swing yet) and sold from tanks on the vendors’ backs. It was such a hot property that the vendors unionized into the Guild of Limonadiers!
Peak Lemonade came in 19th century America. The first U.S. recipe for lemonade was published in 1824, in the Virginia Housewife, and included egg whites. Egg whites or no, for most people it was an exotic treat. Remember, in most places, the lemons had to be shipped in or grown in a hothouse, so it was expensive and exciting.
That might add a little context to the whole temperance lemonade frenzy.
As hard as it is to imagine anyone seriously thinking a workingman would give up his nightly snort for a soft drink, it might be slightly less off the wall if the substitute were something seen as a treat. Maybe.
Still, by the late 19th century, the temperance movement was doing its best to make the case, pushing the slogan: “Goodbye to liquor, here’s lemonade!” It may not have worked for the guys at the corner bar, but it was the rule at the White House, where First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes (inevitably known as Lemonade Lucy) poured out the soft stuff. When she and husband Rutherford B. left, temperance went with them, until Prohibition made it mandatory.
By the end of the 19th century, just plain lemonade wasn’t all that exotic any more. Fortunately, there were new variations. “Portable lemonade” was what we recognize as drink mix: powdered lemon juice, sugar, and citric acid, useful for the frontier and even the military.
And then there’s pink lemonade.
There are two origin stories: one is fun and one is icky. The fun one is that someone at a circus accidentally dropped red cinnamon candies in the vat of lemonade and eureka, a cool new drink was born. The icky one? One of the trapeze girls accidentally rinsed out her red tights in the water meant for lemonade, and nobody had time to go get more water…so they made it into lemonade and sold it anyway. Another version of that story is even worse: it’s the clown’s socks!
However we ended up with pink lemonade, it still fits perfectly with the idea of making the best of a setback. So, when life gives you lemons – and wet clown socks! – make lemonade!
Kathleen Marple Kalb likes to describe herself as an Author/Anchor/Mom…not in that order. An award-winning radio journalist, she currently anchors on the weekend morning show at New York's #1 news station, 1010 WINS. She’s the author of several mysteries, historical and contemporary. Her short stories appear in anthologies and online and have been short-listed for Derringer and Black Orchid Novella Awards. She grew up in front of a microphone and a keyboard, working as an overnight DJ as a teenager in her hometown of Brookville, Pennsylvania…and writing her first (thankfully unpublished) novel at sixteen. When her son started kindergarten, she returned to fiction, and after two failed projects, some 200 rejections, and a family health crisis, found an agent for the third book—leading to a pandemic debut. In hopes of sharing what she’s learned the hard way, she’s active in writers’ groups, including Sisters in Crime and the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and keeps a weekly writing survival tips blog. She, her husband, and their son live in Connecticut in a house owned by their cat.
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