you say lemon, I say limón…

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During my early days in Mexico, I spent my time feverishly hunting down lemons. Don’t get me wrong, I love limes..!! They are great in key lime pie, on my tacos and in cervezas..!! But every once in a while, I would want a lemon. Sometimes, I wanted to make Greek lemon potatoes or lemon chicken or even lemonade. So I would meander down to Wal-Mart, or the Mega grocery store or even the fruit and vegetable market, DAC. I would wander around the store aimlessly and without success seeking lemons. Finally, I would locate a store employee for assitance.

A typical exchange with one of the store employees would frequently go like this –

MePerdone, ¿dónde están los limones? Where are the lemons?
SESon cerca de las naranjas. They are near the oranges.
MeOk, gracias. Ok, thank you.

At which point, I would head over to the oranges and only see limes..!! I would return back to the store employee…

MeUmm..perdone. Esas son las limas. Umm..excuse me. Those are limes.
SENo señora, esos son los limones. No ma’am, those are lemons.

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At which point, I would smile and mutter gracias and walk away. I cannot even begin to enumerate for you the countless times this exchange occurred until I finally just gave up. Uncle, I yelled..!! There were no lemons in Mexico.! And if there were any lemons, there was a monumental conspiracy to keep them away from me.! Interestingly enough, all the research that I have done on the matter has in no way enlightened me. I am just as confused, but more accepting.

The first thoery posits that there are very few lemons in Mexico. The lemons that are produced are either exported or used primarily for lemon peel oil. Some theorists suggest environmental conditions may play a role in the limited supply of lemons. Also, lemons are very rarely grown as fresh fruit in the Latin American market. The motive for this lack of production may be the lime’s status as a major commodity in Latin America, and Mexico specifically. The lime is usually used for similar purposes as the lemon.

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The second theory proposes that besides the botanical issue, there is a linguistic quirk regarding the etymology of the word lemon. Apparently, limón is chiefly used to refer to limes in Mexican Spanish. However, in the Yucatan, the regular Spanish word for lemon which is lima is also used to describe limes.!! Ok, now I’m really confused..?! Can you see why I gave up? So, all along in the grocery store whether I was asking for limónes or limas, I was really asking for limes.! Wow.!

So then, how do you ask for a lemon in Mexico.? According to Rick Bayless, author of several prominent Mexican cookbooks and restaurateur extraordinaire, they are called limónes reales or real lemons.!! At this point, I’m laughing. And on the floor. jajajaja… Who knew.?! Mr. Bayless also points out that he has only seen these real lemons sold in the northwest of Mexico, which of course is nowhere near Quintana Roo.

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Amazingly enough, I learned to survive without lemons. I made chicken or tilapia with lime and cilantro. Instead of lemonade, I learned to love jamaica té or hibiscus tea. Not having
access to lemons opened up my world and expanded my cooking abilities. In fact, I also learned how to chuckle in the produce section every time I heard a new gringo/a ask the same question with frustration. I had been liberated from my lemon quest.!

And it was divine..!! I learned to appreciate a world where the lime reigned supreme. It was either that or go home. And after all, just like the Gershwins’ tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”,

‘But oh, if we call the whole thing off
Then we must part
And oh, if we ever part, then that might break my heart’

And as you all know how I feel about Mexico, I stayed. And I learned to say limóne, while you say lemon 🙂

10 thoughts on “you say lemon, I say limón…

  1. In my part of Mexico, the little green fruit is a limón and the larger yellow fruit is a lima. I can’t tell you how many times I had the following conversation as an English teacher:
    Me: You’re not going to believe me, but I promise I’m telling the truth. This little green fruit (draws a lime), in English, is called a lime. This larger, yellow fruit (draws a lemon), in English, is called a lemon.
    Students: Nooo teacher.
    Me: Yes. Lima in English is lemon, and limón is lime.
    Students: Nooooooo teacher.
    Me: Which fruit do you have with tequila?
    Student: Well *I* have lemon with my tequila.
    Me: What color is it?
    Student: Green.
    Me: That’s not a lemon, that’s a lime.

    Eventually I went to a supermarket in the US and took a picture of the lemons and limes, properly labeled in English, to bring back as proof.

    They did have both the larger yellow fruit and the small green fruit, although of course limones are much, much more common. I once found a paleta store selling both limon and lima-flavored italian ices, and I tried both to confirm: the lima-flavored ice did in fact taste like lemon and the limón-flavored ice tasted like lime.

    Teaching Spanish in the US, people were easier to convince. I just said dramatically, “Les voy a decir un secreto, y no me van a creer, pero es la verdad. Su libro de texto…. es INCORRECTO.” Then I told them that limes are limones and lemons are limas, and they were all too happy to believe me, probably because they enjoyed the subversive idea of the textbook being wrong. Also because I had at least one student in each class who used to live in Brazil and was able to back me up about lime being limão and the yellow fruit not being very common in that part of the world.

    • I am so happy to hear about your experiences..!! When I was studying Spanish in the states, I was taught that a lime was a limón and a lemon was a lima.!! My teacher was from Colombia. So in my head, I naturally remembered it as being the opposite of what it is back home or my natural inclination would lead me to believe.

      So I was completely dumbfounded in the Yucatan when I could not find a lemon or lima. And any and all attempts led me to a lime or limón ..!! It’s an interesting dichotomy to have similar words in the same country used in a different manner. I guess it’s similar to the way some states call a coca-cola a coke, others a pop and still others a soda. Same country, same beverage but a different moniker.!

      Thank you so much for sharing.! And thank you for visiting 🙂 Saludos.!

  2. Solo necesitabas pedir una lima. . . .y se usa muy frecuentemente, especialmente como postre y en aguas frescas. Agua de lima.

    Interesantemente en España los terminos machan con el inglés.

    • Muchismas gracias.! Sí, me tomó un poco de tiempo para entender, pero ahora por fin lo hago. jaja…

      Sí, las diferencias de idioma entre México y España son muy interesantes.!

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