Life Gave a Pastry Chef Lemons. She Made Lemon Bars.

Life Gave a Pastry Chef Lemons. She Made Lemon Bars.

Life Gave a Pastry Chef Lemons. She Made Lemon Bars.

I’m from a lush land. Green abounds in the South. Our climate is so dewy, so thick, that we learn how to breathe through our skin down here. The nearly neon green kudzu, not just a romantic notion, climbs. The vines creep over our lives, over corners, around hills, down slopes, into gutters. We pulse with the heat. We sit with the rain during our summer storms. We ride out hurricanes with rum. We stop and listen to the cicadas when they request our audience every number of years.

So, unsurprising, the first time I stepped off a plane in Southern California, nearly 40 years old, I felt as if I had landed on the moon. I never imagined a place so brown, so red, so hued in ways that required a different use of one’s senses.

I’d left behind a life of grueling restaurant hours and taken a very sensible, very good job as a private chef with a wonderful family in Nashville. And in an unexpected turn of events (for me, anyway), we found ourselves thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, my employer on the cusp of a big career move. It all happened so fast — but there I was, doing a job I had taken to be more present for my family, now clear across the country for weeks at a time.

I followed the same route every day to the Laurel Canyon house they were renting. On my first few drives, everything — the sky, the birds, the brightness of the sun — overwhelmed me in the most satisfying way. Every morning I would stop, pull off to the side of the road, inhale the scent of eucalyptus that would aggressively waft toward me as I stood cliffside, trying to spy it in the brush below. My eyes had never worked so hard to see green. Eucalyptus only whispers its color. Everything is so quiet — a million subtle hues making up an expansive vista.

It felt like my duty to remain in rapture. But after some time, I grew weary of flying to Los Angeles twice a month for 10-day stretches, all while writing a memoir and raising two kids from afar. Seven months in and realizing that my dear employer was not returning to Nashville, I was coming to admit that this work wasn’t sustainable.

On a particularly low day, when I was going to miss my daughter’s middle-school performance, when home felt too far away and I felt too removed from the things that keep me together, I stood at a particularly stunning viewpoint on Mulholland Drive and noticed nothing. In my desolation, the vista was empty.

I wondered, How does a person provide well for her family without being completely lost to them?

And then, like an epiphany from the saints, a glint of yellow caught my eye. I looked to my left, and down the slope about a yard was a modest yet abundant lemon tree.

I went down to a place I probably shouldn’t have and picked four lemons, the ripest I could find, and took it as a sign to do the thing, you know the thing — something about lemonade in times like these.

Make them in some faraway place. Let it bring you home at last.

Years earlier, I promised myself I would not succumb to the deep fear that everything would crumble to pieces if I stopped pushing as hard as I could for a single second. But I held these lemons on my lap and thought, Let it all fall to pieces then. Make lemon bars in some faraway place from lemons foraged off the side of Mulholland. Let it bring you home at last.

I made lemon bars for my employer’s family that day, using a gift of Alabama pecans for the crust and finishing things off with powdered sugar. I took a bite, delighted with the tart little awakening, and left for home. Other bright colors, and my beloved children, were calling me back South.

I thought for a little while about planting a few lemon trees in my yard, or in large pots on my front porch. But it never made sense. Those things don’t grow in Nashville the way they do out in California. But there are other things that do — meant for my place, for my porch, for my climate. And those things, those are the things I will keep trying for.