When life gives you lemons…

The weird history of lemonade

Created date

September 27th, 2019
Lemonade vendor at Rodeo Austin, the city’s annual stock show and rodeo in Austin, Tex.

 Lemonade vendor at Rodeo Austin, the city’s annual stock show and rodeo in Austin, Tex.

Egyptians first enjoyed lemonade as early as 1,000 A.D., and since then the refreshing beverage has been enjoyed worldwide with different cultures tweaking the basic lemon and sweetener recipe to reflect their regional tastes. 

In Bangladesh, they add ginger. In other parts of Asia, salt, saffron, or cumin may be added. 

Limonana, a lemonade drink made with mint leaves, is popular in the Middle East. And Northern Africans enjoy cherbat, a drink made with lemons, mint, and rose water. 

Though the recipe is simple, lemonade is no boring beverage. At various times in history, this sweet-tart drink has given scores of young people their first taste of how to run a business and perhaps even saved an entire city full of people from certain death. 

The plague

The greatest pandemic in history, the plague, killed hundreds of millions of people around the world. It moved over continents in waves between 1300 and 1700, and in the late 1600s, a round of “black death,” as it was called, descended upon Europe.

Back then, little was known about how the disease was transmitted. Today, we know the plague originates in rodents and is transmitted to humans through infected fleas. 

In 1668, Paris braced itself for an outbreak as other French towns were being ravaged, but oddly, it never arrived. It has been one of the biggest mysteries of medical history. Why was Paris spared?

In the lavishly illustrated book, Food Fights and Culture Wars (Abrams Press, 2018), Tom Nealon posits a fascinating theory. Nealon, a self-described book lover and foodie, had been researching a burgeoning food fad that hit Paris around the same time the plague was hitting nearby towns.

As Nealon tells it, Parisians had developed an unquenchable thirst for lemonade, so an army of “limonadiers” roamed the streets selling lemonade.

As the lemonade craze took hold, the city’s streets and trash piles were littered with discarded lemon peels, and the city’s rats had a plentiful new food to consume. 

“I propose that what derailed the spread of the plague into Paris the summer of 1668 was lemons,” says Nealon.

He goes on to explain that the limonene in the lemon peel acted as a natural pest repellent, killing the fleas before they could hop off the rats and onto humans. 

While it’s just a theory, it’s worth noting that, even today, the Environmental Protection Agency lists limonene as an active ingredient in bug sprays and flea repellants used for pets.

Pink lemonade

Though people had been enjoying yellow lemonade for centuries, in the early 1900s, Americans changed the game by making it pink.

There are two different stories about the origins of pink lemonade—one rather mundane, the other totally disgusting.

The first story credits Henry Allott, a well-known circus impresario, with changing the drink’s color when he inadvertently dropped red cinnamon candy into a vat of lemonade. In true “the show must go on” style, he sold the oddly colored drink and people clamored for it. From then on, it was nothing but pink lemonade at his circus. 

The other story also takes place at a circus. It has a flustered circus concessionaire facing a long line of thirsty customers on a hot day. His lemonade supply was running low, but there was no fresh water nearby. Rather than turn away paying customers, he grabbed a bucket of wash water—water that had turned pink after being used to wash a performer’s pink tights—and mixed up a new batch of lemonade. As the story goes, the crowd marveled at the beauty of the drink without knowing how it got its unique color. 

Lemon laws

Warren Buffet, the billionaire CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, credits his childhood lemonade stand with teaching him valuable lessons on how to run a successful business. 

The lemonade stand continues to teach young people about running a business, but in today’s world, those lessons often include how to deal with permits and regulations since unpermitted lemonade stands are legal in only 14 states. 

Earlier this year, lemonade became a contentious legislative issue in Arizona when high school student Garrett Glover lobbied his state representative to introduce legislation making lemonade the official state drink. 

The bill was written and easily passed in the Arizona House, but it hit a snag in the Senate. 

Some were opposed because they just couldn’t get behind promoting a high sugar beverage. One state senator said margaritas would be a better choice. Others thought the legislature had more important issues to focus on. It seemed that Glover’s idea had died on the Senate floor. 

However, in May, the bill was revived, and this time, it passed. 

Despite the lemonade law’s uphill battle, the process didn’t sour Glover on the process. He says he may study politics when he goes to college.