Washington isn't especially popular right now. I am using "Washington" in the metonymic sense, referring to the grinding organs of the federal bureaucracy. The city itself remains vibrant and lovely, even as it lies partially paralyzed by a trifling quantity of snow.
No it's the government that's bearing the brunt of public disapproval, suffering as it always does under the perception that it is incapable of doing anything right. There are many thick volumes of evidence available to build that case, but what often go unremarked are the successful outcomes of government action and initiative, both large and small. Into that latter category we put the Meyer lemon.
And really, the government only gets partial credit for our knowledge of this weird, thin-skinned hybrid of a mandarin orange and the common lemon. The lion's share of the honor goes to the indefatigable Dutchman Frans Meijer, or, as he was known after he emigrated to America in 1901, Frank Meyer. Hey! Like the lemon!
Meyer was a horticulturist and botanist, but when he made it to the United States he found his true calling and became a plant explorer for the Department of Agriculture. Basically, the Agriculture Department threw some money at Meyer and told him to go to Asia and find interesting and/or useful plants that could be introduced into American agriculture. He departed 1905 and spent much of the next 13 years trekking through China, Mongolia, Korea, Japan, and Siberia. And yeah... he basically walked the whole way. And he did it dressed like this. And he was kind of a badass: "One evening as he returned to his inn, three murderous ruffians attacked him, but he drew his bowie knife and defended himself so vigorously that they ran away."
Also, he took a camera with him; mainly to snap photos of plant specimens, but also the people who cultivated them. For the era that was a pretty big deal, and since he spent most of his time hiking through the rural and remote parts of China, he provided thorough documentation of the lives and customs of Chinese farmers. Meyer's observations about Chinese culture ranged from the insightful ("China is going to come to the front, for the people are a solid kind of men and they possess many sterling virtues.") to the less so ("Beancurd and beanmilk always taste beany!").
He was in China for basically every single one of the revolutions and civil wars that the Chinese crammed into the 1910s. That, plus the endless work, plus the outbreak of World War I drove him to despair: "The loneliness of life; the great amount of work I have to do, which I can never finish; the paralyzing effects of this never-ending horrible war; and so many another things, these often rob me of my sleep and make me feel like a ship adrift." And in 1918, it all came to an end, as described by the American consul in Shanghai:
It appears that Mr. Meyer while traveling down the Yangtze from Hankow to Shanghai on the S.S. "Feng Yang Maru" of the Nisshin Kisen Kaisha, was drowned near Wuhu. Whether he fell off the ship accidentally or committed suicide in a fit of depression will probably never be known.
Quite the tragical tale, but the guy left behind an impressive legacy. One of his biggest contributions to American agriculture was the variety of rootstocks he brought back that allowed U.S. farmers to grow fruit trees in otherwise inhospitable soils. Among the plants Meyer encountered and sent back to the U.S.: white pines, ginko biloba, soybeans, and a variety of blight-resistant spinach that, according to people at Harvard who know such things, "save[d] the threatened American spinach-canning industry."
And, of course, the Meyer lemon.
As I said, the Meyer lemon is a mash-up of a normal lemon and a mandarin orange. It looks and tastes fairly lemony, but it lacks the sour bite, so the juice can be used to add lemon flavor to dishes without overwhelming it or throwing the acid balance out of whack. It's also more floral than your standard lemon.
And then there's the peel, which has some complex and herby oils in it and almost none of the thick, bitter pith you find in other citrus fruits. Some zested Meyer lemon peel was used to flavor the spaghetti in garlic cream sauce you see to the right. Garlic and cream are strong, heavy ingredients that cry out for a bit of lightening, and the zest of two Meyer lemons achieves that task admirably while adding a pleasant sort of thyme-y essence to the whole affair. This is a great dish for those of us who suffer silently through the gray dullness of winter -- the Meyer lemons are in season, the lemony zip is reminiscent of springtime, and a cream pasta dish is the perfect thing to fortify oneself against the bullshit weather.
But really, the uses for this wonderful fruit are multitudinous. The LA Times found 100 different things you can do with a Meyer lemon, most of which seem legal. One could make Meyer limoncello. I've made a sorbet out of them which is top-shelf. You could go on and on. And the reason we have this culinary marvel at our ready disposal is because the Agriculture Department shipped a little-known, plant-crazy Dutchman off to China with the goal of making all our lives better.