I hear a lot of lemon jokes, and apparently so does Mario di Paolo, of Mario’s Lemonade in Chicago.
So how did “a lemon” come to mean something undesirable or defective–like a junker car?
Some people say it’s because the lemon is sour — yet that’s exactly the quality that cooks were looking for when they paid exorbitant prices for lemons imported from Sicily.
“We buy a lemon precisely for its endlessly useful acid juice; we would be very annoyed to find it sweet inside…. A modern kitchen without a lemon in it is gravely ill-equipped.
— Margaret Visser, Much Depends on Dinner
I have a theory about why this derogatory usage developed in the U.S. in the early 1900s. At the time, it was nearly impossible to find a decent American-grown lemon.
In Florida, the lemon industry had collapsed after a disastrous freeze in the mid-1890s — and California’s early lemon farmers had a lot to learn about growing, storing and packing lemons.
In 1899, an authority said many California lemons were “deficient in acid, and full of bitterness, prone to decay…”
The lemon is a natural marvel of packaging. Its thick skin cushions the fruit from damage and keeps the flesh inside fresh and juicy– but only when it’s handled with care and stored in the right conditions.
In the early 1900s, few California growers knew how to do this. Eastern fruit merchants complained that California lemons were carelessly packed and weren’t fresh when they arrived. Even buyers in Los Angeles and San Francisco shunned the local lemons and paid exorbitant prices for the superior Sicilian imports.
Consider this: In 1900, 70 percent of lemons consumed in U.S and Canada were imported.
So it seems that American lemons of the early 1900s deserved the defective label. But beginning with C.C. Teague of Limoneira Company in Santa Paula (who helped start and develop the growers’ cooperative that became Sunkist), California growers soon caught up to the standards of imported lemons — and Americans have had little reason to be disappointed with them ever since.
Now, if only we could stop using the term “lemon” to describe defective goods!