Born in Chicago, Toby Sonneman graduated with a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Illinois. After college she worked as a migrant fruit picker for about 16 years.
She now teaches English and journalism at Whatcom Community College and is faculty advisor for the college's student newspaper, Horizon.
Sonneman is the author of "Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West," "Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust" and, most recently, "Lemon: A Global History."
She will talk about the book and her writing process at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, at Village Books. For more about her book and for links to her other websites, see tobysonneman.com.
Question: How did your life as a fruit picker influence the writing of your new book?
Answer: Since I spent so many years as a fruit picker, being around fruit orchards is second nature to me. But there were some real surprises with lemons. I had never picked them, though I picked oranges and grapefruits a couple winters in Florida, and cherries, pears and apples in the summer and fall on the West Coast.
My years involved in agriculture made me very aware of the seasons and what fruits are in season, but lemons are nearly season-less. In Mediterranean climates, where they thrive, you'll often see trees with both blossoms and ripe fruit at the same time, and lemons can be harvested four to six times a year.
Also, lemons don't have to be ripe in the same sense as other fruit; that is, you don't have to wait for them to develop sugar before you pick them. Lemons are supposed to be sour, and we'd be disappointed if the lemons we bought didn't have that refreshing tang.
Q: Why the lemon?
A: I used to have terrible migraines, and more than a decade ago I tried eliminating many common foods that are possible migraine triggers, including citrus, potatoes and tomatoes. I was astounded that the food I missed most of all was the lemon.
I hadn't ever realized how much I used lemon juice and zest, and what a lively essential spirit it gave to food. I was so relieved to learn that lemons didn't cause my migraines that I became rather obsessed with them. I not only wanted to buy and use lots of lemons, but also to learn everything I could about them.
Q: How did your upbringing enter into the project?
A: As I started looking into the lemon's history, I realized I was familiar with its ancestor, the citron, which I knew by the Yiddish name "esrog" as the essential symbol of the Jewish harvest festival. My Russian Jewish grandparents had a special silver container to keep the fruit fresh during the seven-day festival.
The citron is little known these days because it's basically inedible, but in my reading I discovered it was the first citrus fruit to enter Europe and was considered a spiritual symbol by many religions, especially Judaism, perhaps because of its heavenly fragrance. I was also fascinated to learn that Muslim Arabs were responsible for diffusing the lemon, along with advanced agricultural techniques, from Persia to the Mediterranean. So the lemon's early story involves both Jews and Arabs, which I found intriguing.
Q: You cover everything about the lemon from its medicinal properties to the lemon in culture, literature and art. What was your research process for the book?
A: I loved researching the lemon in every way, from reading obscure historical books to meeting lemon growers and sellers, botanists and lemonade makers, to testing lemon recipes.
My partner, Steve, and I went to Southern California about a dozen times, and took many trips to Italy and Sicily, the most important places of lemon history and appreciation. One of the most moving experiences I've ever had was seeing the lemon orchards of the Amalfi Coast. I climbed up a steep spiral of stone steps on a hillside above the Mediterranean where tiny, jewel-like orchards perched on narrow terraces, enclosed by ancient stone walls. The scent of the lemons was intoxicating and I felt as if everything I was learning about the past was still alive in the present, in this exquisite landscape.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: I will be writing more about fruit, which is a passion of mine, perhaps a kind of memoir with fruit. As my three books have been published 10 years apart, no matter what I do, I am not in any hurry.
Reach MARGARET BIKMAN at email@example.com or 715-2273.