The look of sheer shock that sometimes flashes across whoever may be sitting opposite me in the dining hall never fails to amuse me. It is almost as if they’re the one eating the lemon, rind and all. Their reaction is a manifestation of the tartness on my tongue, a bittersweet finale to the sacred tea-drinking experience that accompanies many of my meals. Their eyes widen at the absolute audacity of it all.
You’re not meant to eat the peel, are you? Think of the chemicals!
It is, perhaps, the same look of utter disbelief that I gave my aunt, ten or so years ago when I visited her for the first—and what I sometimes worry will be the last—time in Ukraine.
You mean I can eat the peel? I gazed at her, mouth open in complete bewilderment.
Little did I know that the rind of the lemon was, in fact, perfectly consumable.
As an eight year old, I was already ahead of the curve in terms of appreciating the golden citrus as it should be. While other children recoiled upon smelling the distinct sourness that came from cutting into the humble lemon, when the bitter juices are released from the skin’s tight hold by the piercing of a skillfully sharpened knife, I took pride in my own ability to fish out the wedge that always lay at the bottom of my cup of tea, waiting for me like a shining coin daring to be unearthed by the panners who brave the rivers. I’d pop it into my mouth and look up expectantly at my parents, terribly pleased with this talent of mine that seemed to me the true mark of adult sophistication.
It was, in a way, a substitute for the symbolism I thought laid behind things like brie and olives—delicacies my family rarely afforded, but ones that were of no real significance to me. Indeed, if you asked me then, I’d passionately claim that lemons were loads better than the former two. After all, you couldn’t put a whole spoonful of sugar—like the ones I’d carefully extract in my youth from the pot residing in the lower shelf of our pantry—on an olive or a slice of brie and gently place it in your mouth, relishing in the symphony of sweet and sour that erupted on your tastebuds. The effect simply wouldn’t be the same.
For my aunt, there had been no need to think of the chemicals that may or may not have polluted the fruit. Although I couldn’t say if the lemons imported to Ukraine back in 2012 were ridden with pesticides or not, I do know that it wouldn’t have made a difference either way. The lemon was precious, as was every morsel of food that entered one’s house. I was raised to shudder at the mere thought of throwing away anything on my plate, encouraged to catch all the stray grains of kasha, and watched my dad soak up every last bit of soup in his plate with the bread my mum baked like clockwork every few days. I didn’t grow up hungry, but I did grow up knowing that there were moments when my mother had been. When her dinner was that very piece of bread and a glass of milk.
I didn’t grow up to be a saint either. It’s frighteningly easy to throw away the remains on your plate when the kale salad was obviously made a few days ago and you can tell the dining hall staff is just trying their best to use up the week’s leftovers on a Sunday evening. I don’t do it without a feeling of guilt, knowing my mother would certainly frown upon me. Sometimes I frown upon others too, when I see the obnoxiously large mix of french fries, pasta, and chicken tenders precariously piled on someone’s plate (not a single lemon in sight!), accompanied, of course, by a dinner roll and that epitome of American culture we commonly understand to be a chocolate chip cookie, only to have them take a few bites, claim that they’re really not that hungry, and throw it all away. In moments like those, a mental panic threatens to seize me, and I am made acutely aware of everything that is different about me at this school that has enough food to feed a small army. An army like the one in Ukraine.
I didn’t know what the lemon meant to me until I submitted myself to interrogation (being the Good Student of Human Nature I am), and, admittedly, I am still searching for a definitive answer. At first thought, it’s almost as if it’s all just a simple party trick or a hidden talent.
Yes, I can indeed eat the lemon! No, the taste isn’t bad at all!
The lemon is also inevitably tied to the tea, a glorious liquid that I’m positive accounts for at least 20% of my bodily fluid composition (the other 80% being some mix of vodka and water, being the Eastern European I am). The tea is a ritual, following each home-cooked meal along with a conversation or some honeyed treat, or maybe both if I was really lucky that day.
The lemon is, too, I realize now, my connection to home. To my aunt across time and space, to my family miles away, and to the child I was. The lemon is risk, something you cannot know until you try.
The lemon is, perhaps, me.