It’s hard to find a better way to cool off on a sticky summer day than with a glass of ice-cold lemonade—and humans have felt that way for centuries. Lemons, which originated in Asia (India, northern Burma and China), had made their way to the Mediterranean coast and Egypt by the 12th century. Although it may have been drunk even earlier, the first written evidence of lemonade consumption comes from the writings of Persian poet Nasir-I-Khusraw. We also know from trade records that bottles of qatarzimat, lemon juice mixed with sugar, were commercially available and did a brisk trade in Cairo markets of the time.
Thirteenth-century Arabic books on cooking provide recipes for lemon-syrup drinks, and it is believed even the Mongols enjoyed their lemonade, albeit an alcoholic version. By the mid-1600s, the taste for lemonade had spread to Europe, and street-side limonadiers sold cups of a honey-sweetened version of the drink to passing Parisians. By the 18th century, lemonade had immigrated along with hundreds of thousands of Europeans to America.
During the Victorian era, lemonade became a popular alternative to booze among proponents of the alcohol-abstention movement on both sides of the pond. This famously included First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes, who became known as “Lemonade Lucy” after her penchant for serving lemonade in lieu of alcohol, which she banned from the White House during her husband’s tenure from 1877 to 1881.
Although lemonade’s basic ingredients—lemon juice, water and sugar—have remained the same for centuries, there have been some interesting additions to the beverage over the years, including milk and egg white. Using carbonated water in lieu of the flat stuff is one popular adaptation, especially in Europe, though American purists more often refer to this combination as lemon soda. But it’s the lemon flavor itself, it turns out, that’s a big part of what keeps us coming back for lemonade.
Research has uncovered a scientific basis for our fondness for sour-tasting drinks, especially in hot weather. Drinks with sour flavors stimulate salivation, helping to alleviate the dry mouth feeling associated with thirst and dehydration. And, even better, the increased saliva production keeps up even after we’ve finished drinking—causing humans to associate these flavors with thirst quenching. Lemon juice, of course, has other health benefits as well: Due to its high levels of vitamin C, it has been used to treat scurvy in sailors for centuries.
Scurvy prevention is also what originally prompted the lemon tree to proliferate in California—drinking of the juice hit a high during the California gold rush of 1849, when malnourished miners purchased it to ward off vitamin C-deficiency. Today, more than 90 percent of American lemons come from California, though the United States is typically bested in lemon production by India, Mexico, Argentina, China and Brazil.
We often think of lemonade as a summertime beverage, but lemon trees are actually evergreen, at least in the right climate, and they bloom and produce fruit all year. Although there are some 50 varieties of lemons, most of those consumed in the United States are of the Lisbon, Eureka or Bearss varieties, which are so similar in appearance that they are often difficult to tell apart. A typical lemon tree can yield 500 to 600 pounds of lemons per year, and even at 5 to 6 lemons per cup of juice, that’s a whole lot of lemonade.
This summer, it’s easy to treat yourself to a historically accurate glass of lemonade, as Isabella Beeton included a recipe, which she described as a “summer refresher,” in her Victorian classic “The Book of Household Management,” originally published in 1861.
The rind of two lemons
The juice of 3 large or 4 small lemons
1 lb. loaf sugar
[equivalent today to 1 lb. of regular granulated sugar]
1 quart of boiling water
Rub some of the sugar, in lumps, on 2 of the lemons until they have imbibed all the oil from them, and put it with the remainder of the sugar into a jug; add the lemon-juice (but not pips); and pour over a whole quart of boiling water. When the sugar is dissolved, strain the lemonade through a fine sieve or piece of muslin, and, when cool, it will be ready for use. The lemonade will be much improved by having the white of an egg beaten up in it; a little sherry mixed with it, also, makes this beverage much nicer.