Whether in a wedge or added to recipes in juice, lemons are an anchor in Arab cooking.
Advertisement
A large lemon on a plate
Credit: Tyrel Stendahl/Dotdash Meredith

When I think of my childhood, I think of lemons. I think of unbearably hot, sticky Alabama summers that had me starfished on the floor of my bedroom with the AC blasting hoping for the heat to break. I think about driving around aimlessly in my friend's banana yellow Ford F-150, back roads blurring and 32 ounces of sickly sweet iced tea sweating in a styrofoam cup. I think of boredom, endless boredom, because my town was small and the nearest place with actual things to do was an hour away. 

Growing up in Deep South suburbia in the early aughts was never easy for me, a transplant from NYC with a Syrian-American mother and a family that didn't belong to a church. It became less easy as I got older and came out. I loved it, I hated it, and, eventually, I left it. There are lots of things I've chosen to leave there for better or for worse, but one of the things I've kept are the memories of food. Because if you don't go to church and you don't go to football games, the only things left to do in the South are drinking in Walmart parking lots and eating a lot of delicious food. And there really is a lot of it: fried golden crispy foods and cheesy foods, foods that are more mayonnaise than anything else. We lived near a military base so my small town had blink-and-you'll-miss-them Korean and Thai communities, and once a week my friends and I would hole up in one of the three Mexican places to order towers of nachos. 

But if I really had to hold up a singular image to illustrate the experience of my childhood: lemons.

Anyone raised in an Arab family understands the power that lemons hold: how quickly they can brighten a dish, how harmonious their tartness tastes alongside garlic and parsley. Growing up Arab means that lemons abound — piled high in a hanging basket by the window, zested and bald in the drawer of the fridge. The dimpled bright yellow bottle of store-bought lemon juice in the door. The deep-held belief that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can't be improved with a squeeze of lemon juice. My mom used to tell me stories about her Syrian father running in behind her English mother in the kitchen, rushing to squeeze fresh lemon juice on top of meatloaf or whatever she had in her roasting pan.

In the South, lemons are for sweet tea or meringue pie. My friends' moms would often have plates piled with lemon squares, wrapped in plastic on the counter. As kids we held lemonade stands in our front yards, selling paper cups of the too-sweet powdered lemonade that our moms made for way more money than we'd ever make back. 

I loved those ultra sweet lemon-y drinks and desserts. I also loved the garlicky tartness of Middle Eastern cooking. In my house, when I would beg my mom to cook up a Syrian feast for my friends and me, these two loves got to converge. In the morning, it was a short drive to the Shell gas station to get sweet tea and biscuits for breakfast, and then by late afternoon we'd all be sitting around the kitchen table with my mom helping her roll grape leaves and season kibbeh. 

My friends loved getting to try Syrian food, with so many flavors and textures that were so strange to them. My best friend would meticulously line up the diagonal cuts in a loaf of kibbeh as per my mom's instructions, and we'd run through whatever school gossip we had to dissect while pine nuts toasted in a pan. It was always so fun introducing them to all of the things I loved about the food I grew up with: the surprising bite of a lamb-stuffed grape leaf, the crisp of the caramelized onions on top of mujadara, and a new way of looking at lemons. "There's lemon juice in it," we would explain, "but you'll also want to squeeze it on top," and we would make sure to put a couple of wedges on their plates. 

Although citrus is not native to the Middle East, it has been the bedrock of its various cuisines — particularly Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian food — for thousands of years. In Lebanon in the 1960s, orange and lemon farms thrived in what was called the "Golden Age" of citrus there; in coastal cities like Tripoli and the Akkar District, citrus farms continue to flourish.  Closer to home, Middle Eastern grocers in the U.S. — Sahadi's in Brooklyn being one of the most famous, opened by Syrian immigrants in the late 19th century — stock oversized jars of preserved lemons and slim bottles of perfume-y orange blossom water. Lemon is so ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking that we barely notice it, unless we don't have it: Of course we need extra lemon, no three lemons isn't enough, what do you mean you only have the bottled stuff?

Fat lemon wedges on the side of a plate, delicate slices arranged around a platter of tabbouleh, feathery pieces of lemon pulp floating in a pitcher of mint tea: for me these all feel like acts of love. In a Syrian or Lebanese household, you spend your large family gatherings surrounded by the smell of citrus, garlic, and sesame. When you introduce someone to your culture by sharing the food that feels like home, you tell them how to make the perfect hummus (hint: there's lots of lemon). 

There was real joy in getting to introduce the people I grew up with to Syrian food, but my favorite part about these dinners was seeing how much joy it brought my mother, who spent much of our 20-odd years in Alabama missing her family up north. Eating the food we made in our Southern kitchen reminded both of us of other dinners: much larger family gatherings in Brooklyn kitchens half the size of ours, when multiple generations would squeeze into someone's living room and scoot warm slices of pita across mismatched plates loaded up with hummus, babaganoush, tabbouleh, and grape leaves all spritzed with fresh lemon. 

It would always go like this: first plates, then second plates — third plates for those of us stupid enough to think we could keep eating — and then dessert. Usually dessert wasn't anything Middle Eastern because no one wanted to labor over phyllo dough. But after slices of cake from the bakery up the block, we'd have cups of extra strong coffee, and my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, and their cousins would go over our family tree. The same story every time, bickering about who came over from Zahlé first, who lived on what street in which decade — it could go on for hours. While behind us in the crowded sink at the center of my grandmother's kitchenette, a pile of abused lemon wedges someone forgot to scrape into the trash.