The Lemonade Habit

A fresh squeezed pitcher, in my backyard, ready for consumption.

Do you like lemonade? Not everyone does. Unfortunately, the kind of lemonade most of us drink is the powdered stuff – even when we order it in restaurants. You can tell right away because the powder has a weak lemon flavor, is usually sugar forward and totally lacks the astringency of a good lemon, plus there’s never any of the unami of the lemon bits.

The real stuff, the fresh squeezed stuff, is complex with layers of sweet, sour, tart, laced with the thickness of crushed lemon flesh. At once it is refreshing, titillating with sweetness, and shocking with tartness. With each glass I praise myself for getting a dose of Vitamin C, to keep colds and other ailments away.

Lemonade is so much more than flavored water, you see.

I’ve always loved it. As a kid I didn’t know much about real lemonade because I didn’t live near lemon trees and my family didn’t go for the squeezing. So, it was Country Time mix for me, which was still pretty great. The lemon taste appealed to me, as did the pounds of sugar delivered with every sip. Eventually I discovered Country Time Pink Lemonade mix, which is a far superior drink. In college I always kept a tub of Pink Lemonade mix in my dorm room, since it was tasty and handily disguised the metallic taste of the local town water.

Then, for decades I strayed from my lemonade habit. Caffeinated drinks were mostly my choice in my twenties, iced tea, cola, coffee. Now and then I’d order a lemonade at a restaurant, get shocked at how gross it was, and then be slaked of lemonade desire for months or years at a time.

A few things led to my return to the lemon. First, looking for an inexpensive drink solution for hot days, I started buying all kinds of powdered drinks. My local grocery has a Mexican bent, so in the summer they carry various agua fresca flavors: jamaica, pina, horcada, tamarino. They’re all pretty good, but clearly not as good as the real thing, since they taste of factory machinery. Then, I spied my old friend, Country Time Pink Lemonade. Reunited, I guzzled down gallons of the stuff in a short time. It was like being eleven again. Every time I mixed a glass (for some reason I rarely made a whole pitcher at a time), I could feel myself 18 inches shorter, my parents kitchen counter just below chest height, as I swirled the pink dust in water until it dissolved, dying the water to readiness.

Ready for consumption, the drink would go down quick – for both child and adult – leaving behind a slightly pink detritus of sugar. If I was enterprising, I’d grab a spoon to greedily scoop up the flavored sugar, taken as an extra treat. 

Observing all this, my wife bought a wood lemon reamer and suggested I make my own lemonade.

My Mexican-leaning grocery (it’s also Greekish, with a dozen kinds of feta cheese) regularly stocks giant piles of lemons at a low price. Perfect for my new drink fetish. I’ll grab armfuls of lemons – never bag them, that’s a waste – then bring them home for immediate slicing and squeezing.

It’s important to know that making lemonade is an imperfect art. Different lemon types ripen at different parts of the year. With my growing consumption habit, I’ve learned to tell the difference between Verna, Genoa, Lisbon, and Eureka lemons – despite the fact they are almost never labeled as such in the store. Some have thicker rinds, some produce more juice, some are tarter. I’m not picky about which one, but you should know that four Genoa will get you much more juice than four Eureka, But the Eureka, which is the kind you probably think of when you think lemon – more oval with the pointy-bits on either end – is a bit more tart than others.

For a while I squeezed with the reamer, which I admit was a real wrist workout. After five lemons, you’re done. Forget making a big gallon-sized pitcher for friends. That’s when my wife unearthed her grandmother’s iron juice press with a lever. Simple technology: You put it on a counter, pull the lever back, then place the lemon half (this also works for limes and oranges) on the convex bottom part of the press, then move the lever down, pressing as hard as you can, as the juice runs into a waiting glass, below. After squeezing a half, I usually let it rest, working on the others. I’ll come back to it for one extra press at the end, getting just one more bit out of it, congratulating myself for obtaining more flavor for personal enjoyment.

So, when you get down to squeezing, just aim for a general amount of juice. I shoot for a cup. Then, slightly less than a cup of sugar. Finally, cold water. I always eyeball it, but suppose 8 or 9 cups is a good target. You could do less, for more lemony flavor, more to stretch out the drink.

I don’t add a pinch of salt, some people do, since that takes the edge of the lemon’s astringency. But I savor that part. The ZING! of the lemon makes me feel like “This is healthy. I’m doing a good thing for my body.” Even though I’m pretty sure no doctor or nutritionist would say that. 

And then you’re done. Drink up! The key is to keep in mind that every pitcher of lemonade will be slightly different from the last. Maybe sweeter, maybe tarter, maybe with more pulp. That’s all part of the adventure. 

If you’re a true gourmet there’s plenty of ways to dress up your lemonade. I’ve crushed strawberries and raspberries, mixing them in. Since I grow rosemary and sage in my yard, I’ll cook up a batch of simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar, heat until sugar totally dissolves) and steep the herb in the syrup. Then, I’ll use the syrup in place of sugar in my lemonade mix. I’m a big fan of sage lemonade. You get a slight sagey edge at the end of each sip, which makes me feel superior and sophisticated compared to the average flavored water drinker. See me make multi-stepped drinks, you prole! I know how to enjoy the good life in my kitchen!

And yet, the outside temperature always drops, and my desire for lemonade ebbs. The last bit of summer slips away. Next year I’ll make more, make it better. Next year.