Lemon Steam

Lemon Steam by Sequoia Hack - Photo by Emanuelle Sippy

The house smelled like Grandma’s kitchen when Mama woke me up this Saturday morning. It was the first time that Mama made Grandma’s lemon curd, and it was the first time she made it wearing Grandma’s apron when it didn’t have any holes.

That apron had a pocket on the left breast, but because it was sewn shut on all sides Mama hadn’t seen it before Saturday. She found the pocket while repairing a hole that had been ripped open by Grandma’s rings as she had dried her hands with it. Mama had run her hands along the apron after she sewed the hole shut and discovered a crease in the fabric a couple inches to the left of the hole—seemingly a mere seam under her palm. Mama traced the border around all four sides of the pocket and felt a piece of paper under the fabric. She ripped the stitches and found the recipe for Grandma’s lemon curd.

Grandma had a Meyer lemon tree in the front yard of her house. The tree produced lemons that resembled limes for 10 months out of the year, only switching to a juicy yellow during the 11th month. One hot, rainy Monday, Mama had picked me up from school and drove us to my Grandma’s house to help her juice lemons and sift sugar. I came to know this day to be the last time that I walked through Grandma’s hibiscus and plumeria garden and through her door where there was no rain. I remember entering her kitchen where we were immediately stopped by a cloud of lemon. Grandma would emerge from the fragrant haze and lift me off the ground with her tart, sticky hands. After she spun me around, she’d kiss my mother like butterflies, their eyelash “wings” flitting up and down, grazing each other’s cheeks. I’d grab a spoon off of the silverware rack and dip it into the bowl resting over a simmering pot of bubbling water. I could hardly reach the top of the bowl, let alone see what was inside, but I knew that once the spoon came out of bowl, Grandma’s lemon curd would be my butterfly kiss.

Her curd was glossy and golden from chicken egg yolks; thick as the mist through which butterflies learn to fly, with a taste that was not unlike the nectar that they drink from sweet rainforest flowers.

Grandma hadn’t given my Mama the recipe for her lemon curd before she left, but she had left us her apron. No matter how many times we tried to recreate the curd after she was gone, the resulting consistency would resemble either rubbery jello or runny lemon syrup. We never achieved the silky mousseline of Grandma’s spread until Mama found the hidden apron pocket with the lemon curd recipe inside. The recipe Mama found was laminated in packing tape and sticky with dried lemon curd from years of use. Stapled to the paper was a small bag filled with glimmering powder. The recipe read as follows:

4 teaspoons lemon oil
6.5 teaspoons lemon pepper
5.5 teaspoons lemon drops
4 cups lemonade
5 cups lemon juice

9 teaspoons lemon balm
3 cups white sugar
12 tablespoons salted butter
8 large eggs
4 additional egg yolks
5 teaspoons butterfly wing scales

1. Whisk lemon ingredients together in a bowl over a pot of barely boiling water.
2. Add butter and sugar. Once thickened, add eggs.
3. When the mixture becomes fragrant, take off heat and stir in egg yolks. The heat remaining from the warm mixture will cook the additional egg.
4. Sprinkle top with scales and watch them dissolve.

On the 11th day of the 11th month of 2011, the curd that Mama and I made with Grandma’s recipe formed into the exact lemon curd that I remember scooping from her bowl. We made batches of it many times throughout that day, throughout that week, and throughout that month. Mama and I believed that making the curd would transport Grandma home from wherever she was in the world. We hoped she would walk through a forest of coconut trees with a crown of bougainvillea or emerge from a shallow stream and through our front door to give us butterfly kisses.

We ate the curd on toast, on crumpets, on scones, and over ice cream. I ate a spoonful a day, and I washed my face with it. I read Plumbing for Dummies, and Mama helped me detach the water main so we could fill the bathroom pipes with lemon curd. Eventually, I showered in lemon and washed my hands with lemon and bathed in it once a week. It was as if I was back in Grandma’s kitchen, immersed in lemony nirvana.

One day, I went into the bathroom to bathe in the lemon. I knew Grandma wouldn’t be back. She’d moved too far from us to come back. Under the tub, butterflies fluttered their new wings, admiring their own colors. My dress, colored with solar flares, fell off my shoulders and their proboscises tried to extract its spreading pigment. The knobs turned as far left as they could without falling off, and I deepened myself in the curd, submerging myself in citrusy sleep.

In this mist of juice and zest, butterflies rejoiced. They flew about the bathroom canopy where the ceiling light promotes passion and warmth. Under the canopy was the understory of the rainforest where steam and lemony curd mingled. Monarchs and blue morphos drank from guavas and pineapples that hung from the shower curtain. On the farthest level down, at the rainforest bottom, bathroom tiles were covered in feet of lemon curd. A Papilio demoleus, or what Mama calls a “lemon butterfly,” with spots and stripes of black, green, and yellow, landed on my sticky shoulder. This Papilo demoleus flitted over to my nose and batted its wings against my lashes. It was Grandma and her citrusy butterfly kisses, arriving home from her travels.

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