Gardens of the Cross Timbers: When life gives you lemons

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Bouncy Lemon Meringue Pie

Last weekend was full of surprises. To prepare for Mother’s Day and keep track of the birds at my house, I was either trying to decipher my mom’s lemon meringue party pie recipe or hoisting binoculars to watch birds. By the end of the day I decided my birding skills were better than my cooking skills.

The lemon tree (Citrus x limon) is a citrus hybrid that originated in the eastern Himalayan region of the Indian subcontinent. The male citron (Citrus medica), an Indian tree, contributes half the genes. It has a thick white inner rind and leathery outer rind containing very fragrant oil. The female is the sour orange which itself is a hybrid between the pomelo (Citrus maxima), citrus ancestor of the grapefruit, and mandarin (Citrus reticulata), a smaller, sweeter orange descended from wild oranges that grew in northeast India.

With such an illustrious ancestry, my lemon trees deserved their own plexiglass house! One produces large heavy lemons with a thick inner rind more like its citron daddy. The other, if in the mood, has smaller more discrete juicy lemons. Neither tree, after being moved into their new digs last fall, managed to flower or make any fruits. They concentrated on growing all the way to the top and out to the sides, filling the transparent house with multiple thorny branches covered in abundant leaves. It will be a pruning nightmare, but I am waiting until the weather becomes more typical of the season before I tackle the trees. They won’t be happy. Perhaps they’ll look upon it as a summer haircut.

Lemons I enjoy. Lemon scented polishes and cleaners, lemon slices in water and iced tea, lemonades and lemon meringue pie with a tart, flavorful, creamy filling. I found my mother’s recipe and went to work creating the pie of my memories.

For the first time in many months, the pie crust cooperated and didn’t collapse into itself. While it cooled on a rack, preparation of the filling began. Grated the peel of a large lemon to get two tablespoons of zest. Squeezed lemon tightly to get two tablespoons of juice. Separated three eggs into yolks and whites. Hard part done. Emptied lemon pudding powder into saucepan, mixed in dry ingredients then put in the yolks and water. While stirring, brought the pudding to a boil. This is where things got interesting. The pudding began to thicken over heat, then quickly turned into a dense paste before a single bubble surfaced. I was desperately trying to keep the pudding from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Recipe check. All measurements were correct. When I tried to pour the filling into the pie crust, it peeled away from the sides of the pot and plopped into the shell. Organic Silly Putty. I could have bounced the yellow blob on the floor like a basketball. Using my fingers, I spread out the filling, pushing the sweet play dough to the edges of the crust. A thick layer of freshly whipped meringue was applied over the shiny yellow surface. The pie was quickly browned in the oven.

Looked like a lemon meringue pie. As the meringue cooled, small sugary drops formed on the surface, just like my mother’s pie. Sitting in the refrigerator overnight might help the consistency and let the flavors develop.

The dessert was served on Mother’s Day. The slices appeared deceivingly normal, until one took a fork to them. The incredibly firm filling offered amazing resistance. Eating a bite of pie was analogous to chewing a large gummy bear sandwiched between tender pie crust and soft sweet fluffy egg whites. The flavor was very intense and quite tart. The pie commanded attention and respect.

After reviewing similar recipes the next day, I discovered my pie probably needed additional water for a creamier filling. Perhaps I didn’t correctly copy the recipe. Maybe my mother had a secret way of cooking the filling. Who knows? My grandmother, an accomplished chef, was known for her famous Chess pie. When asked for the recipe, she’d happily give it, but it often had a missing key ingredient. We never knew if this was intentional. Many good cooks don’t divulge their secrets. Next Mother’s Day I’m fixing strawberry pie.

The Saturday pie trials was also the Cornell University Lab Global Big Day. Big Day is a 24 hour marathon bird count. Some birders started at midnight and finished the next midnight. Dedicated. This year 49,243 eBirders took part in 169 countries. Oklahoma Birders counted 235 species in their backyards, wilderness areas, state parks and lakes. Red Slough, in McCurtain County, topped the list with 81 species.

My count began at eleven in the morning and ended at 6 pm. All birds seen or heard were fair game. Bad choice of words. At Carlberg Acres, 28 bird species were noted. My breakdown list:

4 squirrels hanging off or chowing down under birdfeeders

one gray fox

one opossum

one hungry Meadow Vole

2 Canada Geese flying overhead

2 wild turkeys gobbling across the street

2 Eurasian Collared Doves looming over the other birds

11 Mourning Doves…they love scavenging under the bird feeders

1 Greater Roadrunner

1 Yellow-billed Cuckoo clacking in a tree

1 Chuck-will’s-widow singing at dusk

2 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds….so far

24 gulls circling above looking for newly plowed fields

1 Great Blue Heron in transit

3 Turkey Vultures out for breakfast

1 Eastern Phoebe

3 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers all half grown and chasing each other from tree to sky

4 Blue Jays

4 American Crows upset about the squirrels and the fox

2 Carolina Chickadees arguing with the 2 Carolina Wrens

1 Brown Thrasher pounding the fool out of a sunflower seed

1 Northern Mockingbird singing its repertoire in the distance

2 Eastern Bluebirds on a fence

12 Cedar Waxwings still hanging around in the redcedars

6 House Finches, but several are fledglings waiting for their parents to feed them

2 Eastern Meadowlarks in the field

16 Red-winged Blackbirds

10 Brown-headed Cowbirds

21 Northern Cardinals everywhere

1 Dickcissel

3 American Goldfinches, two in brilliant blacks and yellows

1 Barred Owl hooting at night but no answer back

For Mother’s Day I was given a hand-crafted, woodpecker silhouette to attach to a post. The work of art is a reminder that birds share the world with us. Bird populations are decreasing. Our feathered friends need our help.

“Wherever there are birds, there is hope.” Mehmet Murat Ildan

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at