The first time I remember being conscious of Southern California was in the early to mid-'60s, when my father, an Air Force officer, was almost transferred to San Bernardino. I don't remember much of what happened, what the job was, or why he ended up not taking it. I was no more than 10 or 11, and moving or talking about moving was something that we did most of the time.
The job must have progressed as far as a house-hunting trip, though, because what I do remember is him coming home with a paper bag full of grapefruit.
"Kids," he said in an almost worshipful tone, "they grow on trees there."
You have to know that my Dad was raised in North Dakota, so you can imagine the awe this prospect generated in him. What made the biggest impression on me was his claim that every house in Southern California had a swimming pool in the back yard.
The latter, I have learned, is not true. My house in Long Beach does not have a swimming pool in the back yard. It does have citrus trees.
Depending on the season, I can walk out the back door and pluck a perfectly ripe tangelo, orange, kumquat, tangerine or lemon off the tree (the yard isn't that big, but it is that crowded).
And as much as I'd love to be able to take a swim some days, I wouldn't trade my citrus trees for an Olympic natatorium. I am, after all, my father's son. And nothing makes me feel more like a true Southern Californian than the casual bounty that is implied in every piece of back-yard fruit.
This is especially true of the lemon tree--a Meyer, of course, and the apple of my eye. It's a sprawling thing, probably 10 feet tall and 15 feet wide and it bears so heavily that we have more lemons than we can use for all but two or three months of the year.
A Meyer lemon is somewhat sweeter than a normal lemon, with an almost tangerine-like complexity--I even detect a note of lavender--and a thinner, more fragrant rind. For this reason, it is a favorite of discerning home cooks.
In the Bay Area, there is almost a cult of Meyer lemon worship, like Key limes in Florida. In San Francisco, it seems, you can't put lemon on the menu without sticking the word Meyer in front. I can't understand why it hasn't spread here, since the lemons grow so abundantly in Southern California.
Right now my Meyer is in prime time, pumping out fruit at a rate I can scarcely keep up with, and so laden with fragrant blossoms that I can clip a branch or two and stick it in a vase, filling a room with its perfume. This is its own kind of abundance. Imagine giving up 10 or 20 potential lemons for the sake of a scent. Never mind, there's more where that came from.
Of course, no gift is without a price. When we bought the house, the scraggly little lemon tree was overgrown and so loaded with whiteflies that every fruit had to be taken inside and thoroughly sponged to remove the sticky black residue left by the flies.
For the last couple of years, I have tended to the tree, coming inside with long red welts on my arm from trying to prune its thorny branches and putting up with the derision of my wife as I went out every summer weekend to bathe it with bug soap. I have gone so far as to wash each individual leaf, trying to get rid of that scaly plague.
Now, it seems the flies have finally flown. I don't know whether my ministrations were effective or whether this winter's rains scoured them better than I ever could (I suspect the latter). But right now the leaves are glossy green and the ripe fruit shine like miniature suns.
I pick lemons when I need them (one of the advantages of most citrus is that it will wait for weeks on the tree, sitting patiently until called) and I use them in a number of ways--tea, pies, cakes souffles.
But mostly, I make marmalade. It took a while to arrive at the perfect recipe. In fact, I've filled many mayonnaise jars with variously successful attempts. My family would cringe at breakfast as I'd bring out the latest, insisting that we finish it rather than letting good fruit go to waste. (Eventually, of course, I'd get sick of the stuff and toss it when no one was looking.)
I whined about this in print once and got a wonderful postcard from Margaret Corbin, who lives in Santa Monica. She sent her mother's recipe with the note: "Mother passed away in 1976 at the age of 99. What a wonderful lady!" And what a wonderful marmalade.
I've adapted Corbin's mother's marmalade slightly, but the basics are the same: Slice the lemons thin (I cut them in half lengthwise first, so they lie flat on the cutting board), then barely cover them with water. Let this stand overnight. Add two-thirds cup sugar for every cup of fruit/water (the original called for three-quarters cup, which might be the right amount for regular lemons) and cook until jellied. I've found that batches of more than five cups at a time cook too slowly for the best flavor.
I fill the pantry with this stuff every spring. We eat it for breakfast, send it to friends, give it as Christmas gifts . . . and every once in a while I even stick some in the mail to my dad.
And when he comes to visit, I make sure there's a bowl of back-yard fruit in his room before he arrives. I've noticed, though, that the bowl is usually even more full when he leaves.
There's nothing to make you feel more like a Southern Californian than picking your breakfast. Hey, it grows on trees.
MEYER LEMON MARMALADE
4 to 5 Meyer lemons, about 1 1/4 pounds
2 1/2 to 3 cups water
3 1/3 cups sugar
Slice lemons thin and discard ends and seeds. Place lemon slices in large bowl and barely cover with water. Let stand overnight.
Place lemons and soaking water in large non-reactive preserving pan. Add sugar (2/3 cup sugar for every 1 cup lemon-water). Bring to boil. When foam begins to build, after 15 to 20 minutes, reduce heat just low enough to keep mixture from boiling over. Cook until jelly thermometer reaches 220 degrees.
Ladle into sterilized jars and attach clean lids. Lower jars into boiling water to cover and boil 5 minutes. Remove and cool. When cool, press lightly on top of lid, it should not pop back. If lid pops back, repeat heating process.
Makes 3 (1/2-pint) jars.
Each tablespoon contains about:
56 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0 fiber.