One of the lemon’s main ancestors is the citron or esrog (or etrog, depending on your pronunciation preference). Citron is one of the three naturally occurring wild species of citrus (the others are pomelo and mandarin). That means that even lemon is a hybrid — an ancient and naturally occurring hybrid which draws most of its genetic heritage from the citron.
In antiquity several religions chose the citron as a religious symbol, but none did so more intensely–even obsessively– than the Jews. The esrog is an essential symbol of the Jewish harvest festival, Sukkos, which in biblical times was considered the most important holiday of the year. Observant Jews all over the world demanded a perfect, unblemished fruit — grown according to very rigid ritual standards–for the seven-day holiday. My Russian Jewish grandparents brought a special silver container with them to America which was used to keep the esrog fresh during Sukkos. (For more on this subject, see my 2003 article in Reform Judaism Magazine).
Some years ago, doing research for Lemon: A Global History, I went to the San Joaquin Valley in California and met John Kirkpatrick, who has been the only significant U.S. grower of esrog citrons for religious use (under rabbinical supervision) for more than 30 years. The growing and marketing of this fruit for the Orthodox Jewish community is fascinating and extremely demanding. (You’d think it would be even more difficult for someone who isn’t Jewish, but John, a Presbyterian, is extremely knowledgeable about Jewish agricultural law and religious stipulations.)
Every year before Sukkos, John and his wife Shirley send me an esrog for the holiday. It’s always such a special event for me to open the box and smell the heavenly fragrance of the fruit — and to hold it in my hand for the Sukkos prayer.
This year it was especially thrilling to receive the box pictured above. John wrote that it is a Temoni esrog, originally from Yemen. The Yemenite refugees who came to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet in 1949 and 1950 brought this type of esrog with them, he wrote.
I recently wrote an article for Tablet Magazine about what you could do with your esrog after the holiday — such as make a liqueur or a marmalade. Traditionally, once the holiday was over and the esrog was no longer sacred, women used it in a variety of ways, many of which purported to influence or ease pregnancy and birth.
Another interesting thing is that the white cushion-y fiber under the skin — the albedo or pith — of the citron is very thick and can be sweet rather than bitter as it often is with the lemon. John writes that the albedo of the Temoni variety is the nearest of all to being sweet — so I will be sure to try it!