What to Do with That Etrog?

 

Etrogs growing, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

Etrogs growing, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

This article by Toby Sonneman originally appeared in Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. Toby Sonneman is the author of Lemon: A Global History and is working on a website www.thegreyfolder.com, an intensive search for how the Holocaust affected her family.

The etrog, or citron, which looks like a large, lumpy lemon, plays an important ritual role in the Jewish festival of Sukkot. People pay big bucks to get a particularly beautiful specimen. (For a humorous look at the importance of the etrog during Sukkot, rent the Israeli film Ushpizin.)

An alternate pronunciation of the word, common among Jews from Eastern Europe, is “esrog.” The plural is etrogim or esrogim.

This year Sukkot began at sundown on September27, 2015 and ends at sundown on October 5. Toby discusses what to do with etrogim after the holiday is over.

An etrog looks like a large, lumpy lemon.

An etrog looks like a large, lumpy lemon.

There’s a Yiddish expression to describe something that has no value: “an etrog after Sukkot.” Considering that an etrog can cost $30 or more before Sukkot—the holiday in which this citrus fruit is ritually important—and yet seems to be worth nothing once the holiday ends, it’s an apt expression.

So, what can you do with an etrog after Sukkot? It would be wasteful as well as disrespectful to simply toss this exotic fruit in the garbage — especially when there are, in fact, many uses for it.

There is a rich folklore of Jewish customs concerning the post-holiday etrog.

A woman’s thing

Traditionally, once it was retired from its ritual role, the etrog was turned over to women for secular uses. In The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, Michael Strassfeld notes that the fruit, with its breastlike shape, was considered to have a special relationship to women, and a variety of Old World practices connected it to pregnancy and birth.

Etrog marmelade, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

Etrog marmelade, photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons

A childless woman who wanted to bear a son was advised to bite the pitom (tip) of an etrog. A pregnant woman who ate the etrog after Sukkot, according to the Talmud, would give birth to a “fragrant” child – the equivalent of a “good” child. And a woman in labor could ease the pain of childbirth, it was said, by placing the etrog’s pitom under her pillow.

The belief that the etrog could ease the pains of childbirth also extended to jam or jelly made from the fruit. My grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Russia, soaked etrog peel for days to decrease its bitterness and made it into marmalade, saving the precious jars of golden preserves to give to postpartum mothers, including my own mother, to help them recover their strength after childbirth.

There are other classic ways of preserving etrog, or citron, that have less to do with folk wisdom and more to do with traditional uses of citrus fruits in general.

Citron-infused liqueur

The etrog can lend itself to a number of drinks. After Sukkot, John Kirkpatrick, an etrog-farmer in California, sells great quantities of the remaining fruit, as well as a related citron called Buddha’s Hand, to St. George Spirits for its citron-infused vodka.

In Italy, a liqueur described as “the noble cousin of limoncello” is made with the rind of citron rather than lemon; Zaide Reuven, a Dallas supplier of etrog-and-lulav sets (willow and palm branches used in Sukkot services) and author of The Esrog, calls such a liqueur “etrog schnapps” and provides a simple recipe (see below). The citron peel could also be used to flavor other beverages, such as lemonade or sangria.

Remember, Jews aren’t the only people who use the etrog. Candied citron, in particular, has a long non-Jewish history. Since the 15th century, when citron peels were soaked in seawater brine for

The etrog has much more pith and much less juice than a lemon; photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons.

The etrog has much more pith and much less juice than a lemon; photo by Susie Wyshak via Flickr Creative Commons.

40 days before being submerged in a sugar solution, it has been a signature flavor of Christmas cakes such as Italian panettone and English fruitcake.

David Lebovitz, a pastry chef and cookbook author who lives in Paris, has experimented with making candied and glazed citrons. (As with all culinary uses of the etrog, it’s always a good idea to wash and scrub the peel to reduce any pesticide residue.)

Candied citron and citron preserves are fundamental to pastry making in Sicily, where the etrog (cedro, in Italian) is grown and sold. Tourists, seeing these giant citrons for sale alongside lemons and oranges at fruit stands, often remark that these are the largest lemons they’ve ever seen. But if they buy one expecting to find abundant juice, they soon realize their mistake: The pulp of the etrog is seedy and dry.

The pith, however—that white spongy layer beneath the peel that is often bitter in lemons and oranges—is a wide expanse in an etrog and can be surprisingly sweet. Sicilians cut the pith into thin slices and sprinkle them with salt or sugar for a snack, or combine them in a salad with fennel, oil, salt, and pepper.

 

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