When you’ve planted lemon trees

On weekend mornings I used to walk over to the coffee shop, leaving slushy bootprints on salty sidewalks. I’d grab a mug and settle in with my book or computer while the town was still sleepy outside. The whirr of grinding beans and hisses of steam from the espresso machine made an underlying accompaniment for the early risers debating local taxes at the bar. 

Slowly the crowd would trickle in and soon enough I’d be glancing over at couples swapping moist forkfuls of my beloved, tangy almond-lemon curd cake– who says you can’t have dessert for breakfast?

 I’d notice bundled grandmothers treating toddlers to chocolate chip cookies. Tiny faces wrapped in striped woolen hats, fat cheeks gobbling. They would turn about half the cookie into crumbs in the process, scattering them across the table as though marking their territory. I’d see them out of the corner of my eye, the grandmother laughing absurdly and pinching the little one’s pudgy skin. And I would sigh, satisfied. Content at keeping to myself that I was more a part of the moment these strangers were sharing than they would know; I was their baker. 
At work in the days that followed I’d open the ovens, a gust of hot air and vanilla fumes washing over me. I’d slide trays of scones out and onto the cooling racks, imagining impatient children and stressed out girlfriends and busy electricians whose days might be brightened with a few bites. “I mean don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this job,” I’d say, turning around and tossing off hot mitts while I peaked into the mixer that was frantically beating, puffing up little clouds of cinnamon. “But it’s not like anyone NEEDS this stuff.” My co-workers would nod and we’d start discussing the lack of nutrious food in this context or that, around the corner or in rural villages across the globe. The topic would turn to the farm down the road, gestured at with a plastic spatula. They were starting an impressively progressive sliding scale scheme for their produce pricing. We’d pause the conversation occasionally of course to belt along to whatever track the college student DJs had put on the radio. Then someone would ask if we’d heard about the organization in town that was focusing on setting minority farmers up with land and apprenticeships. “Yeah that’s RAD” I’d say.  

A couple years later, Muchimba, my Zambian sister, claps her hands together in delight and doubles over on her stool, excitement bursting forth as a physical reflex in a way that children haven’t unlearned yet. In the flickering light of the waning flames her face is half lit and I see one side of a smile she can’t contain. She looks as though she has tricked the world, momentarily one step ahead of its rapid turning. I have just said that I know how to bake a cake and that on Wednesday we can make one. I am looking forward to it too. In the process of adjusting to life with no refrigeration, cooking only with charcoal, my existence lately has been far more “eat-to-live” than I have ever known.

  Jubilee scootches forward on her oil jug seat. “And what can you make from mangos?” She asks in Tonga. 

“Oh so much– you can make cakes, we can dry it, we can make candy, we can ferment it and make a bubbly soft drink, or vinegar or –” “Vinegar?!” They say in disbelief. “Mmhm.” 

I am relieved, finally feeling useful after a couple weeks of being corrected on everything from how to carry a bucket of water to how to separate peanuts from shells in the wind. My mouth tries to smile and yawn simultaneously, confused muscles forming a silly looking squirm. And I realize how heavy my eyelids feel. I’ve been up since before sunrise. I had to light my brazier and cook before a morning interview with an elder about how people are responding to climate change. Then I spent the rest of the day biking around the villages pedaling through sandy soils, basically just trying to bring up the idea of green manures in conversation as many times as possible. 

“And what about lemonade.” Jubilee says. “…What about it?” I ask, tempted to respond with Beyonce lyrics. “Well do you know how to make it?”

 I wonder if this is a trick question. “Um, yes, I know.” “Ooooohhhh” she says, and then rambles through a thousand words in five seconds. I gather that they have Plenty of lemon trees and don’t know what to do with them. I say that we can also make candy from the peels and they laugh hysterically when I say all we need for both these things is sugar and water.


 Just sugar and water. The part of me that is still a grad student wanders off, thinking about the messy history of sugar explained in Mintz’s Sweetness and Power… the links between island slave plantations and sweetened tea fueling industrial laborers in England…the hidden presence of sugar in so many foods…and diabetes and dental decay. 

But now Muchimba is practically dancing in her seat, face alight, and I am present again. Our eyes meet and I feel her contagious anticipation. My mouth waters and my lips pucker into a mischievous and amused grin, as though we are sharing a secret. As though I am saying “Yes, child, soon we shall feast. Together, we can make this life delicious.”


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