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Limeys and the Cure for Scurvy

Throughout Jane Austen’s life, she was to hold an affection for the British Royal Navy. This was due to the enlistment of two of her brothers, Francis and Charles. Readers of her novels will find a number of positive naval characters, none more so that Captain Wentworth of Persuasion. Officers like these would have been well aware of the dangers of scurvy and alert to its presence aboard ship.

Scurvy is a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. Scurvy often presents initially with fatigue, followed by formation of spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from the mucous membranes. Spots are most abundant on the thighs and legs, and a person may look pale, feel depressed, and be partially immobilized. As scurvy advances, there can be open, suppurating wounds, loss of teeth, yellow skin, fever, neuropathy and finally death from bleeding.

Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa. 1841/2.
Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa. 1841/2.

Scurvy was at one time common among sailors, pirates and others aboard ships at sea longer than perishable fruits and vegetables could be stored (subsisting instead only on cured and salted meats and dried grains) and by soldiers similarly deprived of these foods for extended periods. It was described by Hippocrates (c. 460 BC–c. 380 BC), and herbal cures for scurvy have been known in many native cultures since prehistory. Scurvy was one of the limiting factors of marine travel, often killing large numbers of the passengers and crew on long-distance voyages. This became a significant issue in Europe from the beginning of the modern era in the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, continuing to play a significant role through World War I in the early 20th century.

Between 1500 and 1800, it has been estimated that scurvy killed at least two million sailors:

  • Jonathan Lamb wrote: “In 1499, Vasco da Gama lost 116 of his crew of 170; In 1520, Magellan lost 208 out of 230;…all mainly to scurvy.”
  • In 1593, Admiral Sir Richard Hawkins advocated drinking orange and lemon juice as a means of preventing scurvy.
  • In 1614 John Woodall, Surgeon General of the East India Company, published “The Surgion’s Mate” as a handbook for apprentice surgeons aboard the company’s ships. In it he described scurvy as resulting from a dietary deficiency. His recommendation for its cure was fresh food or, if not available, oranges, lemons, limes and tamarinds.
  • A 1707 handwritten book is by Mrs. Ebot Mitchell discovered in a house in Hasfield, Gloucestershire, contains a “Recp.t for the Scurvy” that consisted of extracts from various plants mixed with a plentiful supply of orange juice, white wine or beer.

In 1734, the Leiden-based physician Johann Bachstrom published a book on scurvy in

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Lind with the frontspiece of his findings on scurvy.

which he stated that “scurvy is solely owing to a total abstinence from fresh vegetable food, and greens; which is alone the primary cause of the disease” and urged the use of fresh fruit and vegetables as a cure. In 1740, citrus juice (usually lemon or lime juice) was added to the recipe of the traditional daily ration of watered-down rum known as grog to cut down on the water’s foulness. Although they did not know the reason at the time, Admiral Edward Vernon’s sailors were healthier than the rest of the navy because of the daily doses of vitamin C his sailors received. However, it was not until 1747 that James Lind formally demonstrated that scurvy could be treated by supplementing the diet with citrus fruit, in the first ever clinical trial. In 1753, Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy, in which he explained the details of his clinical trial, but it occupied only a few paragraphs in a work that was long and complex and had little impact. In fact, Lind himself never actively promoted lemon juice as a single ‘cure’. He shared medical opinion at the time that scurvy had multiple causes – notable hard work, bad water and the consumption of salt meat in a damp atmosphere which inhibited healthful perspiration and normal excretion – and therefore required multiple solutions. He was also side-tracked by the possibilities of producing a concentrated ‘rob’ of lemon juice by boiling it. Unfortunately this process destroyed the vitamin C and was unsuccessful.

During the 18th century, scurvy killed more British sailors than enemy action. It was mainly by scurvy that George Anson, in his celebrated voyage of 1740–1744, lost nearly two-thirds of his crew (1300 out of 2000) within the first ten months of the voyage. The Royal Navy enlisted 184,899 sailors during the Seven Years’ War; 133,708 of these were “missing” or died by disease, and scurvy was the leading cause.

HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland, by Samuel Atkins c. 1794.
HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland, by Samuel Atkins c. 1794.

Although throughout this period sailors and naval surgeons were increasingly convinced that citrus fruits could cure scurvy, the classically trained physicians who ran the medical establishment dismissed this evidence as mere anecdote which did not conform to current theories of disease. They considered that scurvy was a disease of internal putrefaction brought on by faulty digestion caused by the naval diet. Although this basic idea was given different emphases by successive theorists, the remedies they advocated (and which the navy accepted) amounted to little more than the consumption of ‘fizzy drinks’ to activate the digestive system, the most extreme of which was the regular consumption of ‘elixir of vitriol’ – sulphuric acid taken with spirits and barley water and laced with spices. In 1764, a new variant appeared. Advocated by Dr David McBride and Sir John Pringle, Surgeon General of the Army and later President of the Royal Society, this idea was that scurvy was the result of a lack of ‘fixed air’ in the tissues which could be prevented by drinking infusions of malt and wort whose fermentation within the body would stimulate digestion and restore the missing gases. These ideas receiving wide and influential backing, when James Cook set off to circumnavigate the world (1768–1771) in HM Bark Endeavour, malt and wort were top of the list of the remedies he was ordered to investigate. The others were beer, sour crout and Lind’s ‘rob’. The list did not include lemons. Cook did not lose a single man to scurvy, and his report came down in favour of malt and wort, although it is now clear that the reason for the health of his crews on this and other voyages was Cook’s regime of shipboard cleanliness, enforced by strict discipline, as well as frequent replenishment of fresh food and green stuffs. Another rule implemented by Cook was his prohibition of the consumption of fat scrubbed from the ship’s copper pans, then a common practice in the Navy. In contact with air the copper formed compounds that catalytically oxidised the vitamin C, destroying its efficacy.

The first major long distance expedition that experienced virtually no scurvy was that of the Spanish naval officer Alessandro Malaspina, 1789–1794. Malaspina’s medical officer, Pedro González, was convinced that fresh oranges and lemons were essential for preventing scurvy. Only one outbreak occurred, during a 56-day trip across the open sea. Five sailors came down with symptoms, one seriously. After three days at Guam all five were healthy again. Spain’s large empire and many ports of call made it easier to acquire fresh fruit.

Although towards the end of the century McBride’s theories were being challenged, the medical establishment in Britain remained wedded to the notion that scurvy was a disease of internal ‘putrefaction’ and the Sick and Hurt Board, run by administrators, felt obliged to follow its advice Within the Royal Navy however opinion – strengthened by first-hand experience of the use of lemon juice at the siege of Gibraltar and during Admiral Rodney’s expedition to the Caribbean – had become increasingly convinced of its efficacy. This was reinforced by the writings of experts like Gilbert Blane and Thomas Trotter and by the reports of up and coming naval commanders.

Detailed taxonomic illustration by Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897.
Detailed taxonomic illustration by Franz Eugen Köhler, 1897.

With the coming of war in 1793, the need to eliminate scurvy acquired a new urgency. But the first initiative came not from the medical establishment but from the admirals. Ordered to lead an expedition against Mauritius, Rear Admiral Gardner was uninterested in the wort, malt and elixir of vitriol which were still being issued to ships of the Royal Navy, and demanded that he be supplied with lemons to counteract scurvy on the voyage. Members of the Sick and Hurt Board, recently augmented by two practical naval surgeons, supported the request and the Admiralty ordered that it be done. There was however a last minute change of plan. The expedition against Mauritius was cancelled. On 2 May 1794, only HMS Suffolk and two sloops under Commodore Peter Rainier sailed for the east with an outward bound convoy, but the warships were fully supplied with lemon juice and the sugar with which it had to be mixed. Then in March 1795, came astonishing news. Suffolk had arrived in India after a four-month voyage without a trace of scurvy and with a crew that was healthier than when it set out. The effect was immediate. Fleet commanders clamoured also to be supplied with lemon juice and by June the Admiralty acknowledged the groundswell of demand in the navy had agreed to a proposal from the Sick and Hurt Board that lemon juice and sugar should in future be issued as a daily ration to the crews of all warships.

It took a few years before the method of distribution to be all ships in the fleet had been perfected and the supply of the huge quantities of lemon juice required to be secured, but by 1800, the system was in place and functioning. This led to a remarkable health improvement among the sailors and consequently played a critical role in gaining the advantage in naval battles against enemies who had yet to introduce the measures

The surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon’s army at the Siege of Alexandria (1801), Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, wrote in his memoirs that the consumption of horse meat helped the French to curb an epidemic of scurvy. The meat was cooked but was freshly obtained from young horses bought from Arabs and was nevertheless effective. This helped to start the 19th-century tradition of horse meat consumption in France.

Lauchlin Rose patented a method used to preserve citrus juice without alcohol in 1867, creating a concentrated drink known as Rose’s lime juice. The Merchant Shipping Act established in the year 1867 required all ships of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy to provide a daily lime ration to sailors to prevent scurvy. The product became nearly ubiquitous, hence the term “limey”, first for British sailors, then for English immigrants within the former British colonies (particularly America, New Zealand and South Africa), and finally, in old American slang, all British people.

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897.
Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, 1897.

The plant Cochlearia officinalis, also known as “Common Scurvygrass”, acquired its common name from the observation that it cured scurvy, and it was taken on board ships in dried bundles or distilled extracts. Its very bitter taste was usually disguised with herbs and spices; however, this did not prevent scurvygrass drinks and sandwiches becoming a popular fad in the UK until the middle of the nineteenth century, when citrus fruits became more readily available.

West Indian limes replaced lemons because they were more easily obtained from Britain’s Caribbean colonies and were believed to be more effective because they were more acidic, and it was the acid, not the (then-unknown) Vitamin C that was believed to cure scurvy. In fact, the West Indian limes were significantly lower in Vitamin C than the previous lemons and further were not served fresh but rather as lime juice, which had been exposed to light and air and piped through copper tubing, all of which significantly reduced the Vitamin C. Indeed, a 1918 animal experiment using representative samples of the Navy and Merchant Marine’s lime juice showed that it had virtually no antiscorbutic power at all.

The belief that scurvy was fundamentally a nutritional deficiency, best treated by consumption of fresh food, particularly fresh citrus or fresh meat, was not universal in Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and thus British sailors and explorers continued to suffer from scurvy into the 20th century.

In the Royal Navy’s Arctic expeditions in the 19th century it was widely believed that scurvy was prevented by good hygiene on board ship, regular exercise, and maintaining the morale of the crew, rather than by a diet of fresh food. Navy expeditions continued to be plagued by scurvy even while fresh (not jerked or tinned) meat was well known as a practical antiscorbutic among civilian whalers and explorers in the Arctic. Even cooking fresh meat did not entirely destroy its antiscorbutic properties, especially as many cooking methods failed to bring all the meat to high temperature.

Ernest Shackleton, Scott, and Edward Wilson before their march to the South Pole during the Discovery Expedition, 2 Nov 1902.
Ernest Shackleton, Scott, and Edward Wilson before their march to the South Pole during the Discovery Expedition, 2 Nov 1902.

At the time that Robert Falcon Scott made his first expedition (1901-1904) to the Antarctic in the early 20th century, the prevailing theory was that scurvy was caused by “ptomaine poisoning”, particularly in tinned meat. Fortunately, Scott immediately discovered that a diet of fresh meat from Antarctic seals cured scurvy before any fatalities occurred.

800px-Vilhjalmur_Stefansson
Canadian explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 17 September 1915.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an arctic explorer who lived among the Inuit, proved that the all meat diet they consumed did not lead to vitamin deficiencies. He participated in a study in New York’s Bellevue Hospital in 1935, where he and a companion ate only meat for a year while under close medical observation, yet remained in good health. Some Antarctic expeditions, such as Scott’s two expeditions and Shackleton’s Ross Sea party, suffered from scurvy, mainly during inland sledge journeys when the men had access to a very limited range of food, virtually none of it fresh. Scurvy was rare or absent when they had access to a wider range of stored food or relied on seal meat.

In 1907, the needed biological-assay model to isolate and identify the antiscorbutic factor was discovered. Axel Holst and Theodor Frølich, two Norwegian physicians studying shipboard beriberi contracted aboard ship’s crews in the Norwegian Fishing Fleet, wanted a small test mammal to substitute for the pigeons then used in beriberi research. They fed guinea pigs their test diet of grains and flour, which had earlier produced beriberi in their pigeons, and were surprised when classic scurvy resulted instead. This was a serendipitous choice of model. Until that time, scurvy had not been observed in any organism apart from humans and had been considered an exclusively human disease. (Some birds are susceptible to scurvy, but pigeons, as seed-eating birds, were later found to be unaffected by scurvy, as they produce vitamin C.) Holst and Frølich found they could cure scurvy in guinea pigs with the addition of various fresh foods and extracts. This discovery of a “clean” (reliable) animal experimental model for scurvy, which was made even before the essential idea of “vitamins” in foods had been put forward, has been called the single most important piece of vitamin C research.

 

Images and information from Wikipedia.com

 

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James Lind: Medical Pioneer

James Lind  (4 October 1716 – 13 July 1794) was a Scottish physician who may be credited with improving if not actually saving the lives of Jane Austen’s sailor brothers, Francis and Charles. The advancements he made in  the treatement and prevention of Scurvy and Typhus were breakthroughs for their time and continue to be implemented today.

James_Lind_by_Chalmers
James Lind (1716-1794) by Sir George Chalmers, c 1720-1791

Lind is known for conducting the first ever clinical trial after he developed the theory that citrus fruits cured scurvy. He argued for the health benefits of better ventilation aboard naval ships, the improved cleanliness of sailors’ bodies, clothing and bedding, and below-deck fumigation with sulphur and arsenic. He also proposed that fresh water could be obtained by distilling sea water. His work advanced the practice of preventive medicine and improved nutrition.

Lind was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1716 into a family of merchants. He had an elder sister. In 1731 he began his medical studies as an apprentice of George Langlands, a fellow of the Incorporation of Surgeons which preceded the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. In 1739, he entered the Navy as a surgeon’s mate, serving in the Mediterranean, off the coast of West Africa and in the West Indies. By 1747 he had become surgeon of HMS Salisbury in the Channel Fleet, and conducted his experiment on scurvy while that ship was patrolling the Bay of Biscay. Just after that patrol he left the Navy, wrote his MD thesis on venereal diseases and earned his MD from the University of Edinburgh Medical School, and was granted a license to practice in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Scurvy is a disease now known to be caused by a Vitamin C deficiency, but in Lind’s day, the concept of vitamins was unknown. Vitamin C is necessary for the maintenance of healthy connective tissue. In 1740 the catastrophic result of Anson’s circumnavigation attracted much attention in Europe; out of 1900 men, 1400 had died, most of them allegedly from having contracted scurvy. According to Lind, scurvy caused more deaths in the British fleets than French and Spanish arms. Continue reading James Lind: Medical Pioneer

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Pike with Pudding in the Belly

In his diary (1752-1802) Parson Woodforde recounts, with a gastronome’s delight, the details of many a meal. These peeks into the past give a wonderful feeling of what life must have been like for the Austen family, social as well as historical contemporaries of the parson.

The following entry from June 4, 1777, describes one such meal:

pike

800px-Esox_lucius1

In his diaries, Woodforde often mentions fishing and Pike were often caught. This large, carnivorous fish is considered particularly good sport among anglers and is still sought after, today. Elizabeth Moxon’s 1764 cookbook, English Housewifry: Exemplified in Above Four Hundred and Fifty Receipts Giving Directions in Most Parts of Cookery … with an Appendix Containing Upwards of Sixty Receipts, offers the following recipe for this dish:

How to roast a Pike with a Pudding in the Belly
Take a large pike, scale and clean it, draw it at the gills. To make a pudding for the Pike, take a large handful of breadcrumbs, as much beef -suet shred fine, two eggs, a little pepper and salt, a little grated nutmeg, a little parsley, sweet marjoram and lemon peel shred fine; so mix it altogether, put it into the belly of your pike, skewer it all around, place it in an earthen dish with a lump of butter over it, a little salt and flour, so set it in the oven. An hour will roast it.

Continue reading Pike with Pudding in the Belly

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Hannah Glasse’s Jugged Hare

The well appointed Georgian table relied heavily on a variety of meats served at each course of every meal. This included not only your run of the mill beef, mutton and poultry, but also game such as venison and hare.  In her letters, Jane Austen mentions receiving gifts of meat, such as the “a pheasant and hare the other day from the Mr. Grays of Alton” in 1809 and the “hare and four rabbits from G[odmersham] yesterday”, claiming that they are now “stocked for nearly a week.” (November 26, 1815). Perhaps the most famous recipe for Hare is, of course, Jugged Hare.

Jugging is the process of stewing whole animals, mainly game or fish, for an extended period in a tightly covered container such as a casserole or an earthenware jug. In French, such a stew of a game animal thickened with the animal’s blood is known as a civet.

One common traditional dish that involves jugging is Jugged Hare (known as civet de lièvre in France), which is a whole hare, cut into pieces, marinated and cooked with red wine and juniper berries in a tall jug that stands in a pan of water. It is traditionally served with the hare’s blood (or the blood is added right at the very end of the cooking process) and port wine. Continue reading Hannah Glasse’s Jugged Hare

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A Recipe for Lemon Cream

lemon cream

A Recipe for Lemon Cream

The origin of the lemon is a mystery, though it is thought that lemons first grew in Southern India, northern Burma, and China. A study of the genetic origin of the lemon reported that it is a hybrid between sour orange and citron.

lemons

The first substantial cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa in the middle of the 15th century. The lemon was later introduced to the Americas in 1493 when Christopher Columbus brought lemon seeds to Hispaniola on his voyages. Spanish conquest throughout the New World helped spread lemon seeds. It was mainly used as an ornamental plant and for medicine. In 1747, James Lind’s experiments on seamen suffering from scurvy involved adding lemon juice to their diets, though vitamin C was not yet known.

By Jane Austen’s lifetime, lemons were not an uncommon household item and many recipes in both commercially published cookery books and private collections, such as Martha Lloyd’s Household book, call for the fruit. The following recipe for lemon cream is fairly easy to replicate and offers a light and refreshing custard like dessert.

Lemon Cream
Take a pint of thick cream, and put it to the yolks of two eggs well beaten, four ounces of fine sugar and the thin rind of a lemon; boil it up, then stir it till almost cold: put the juice of a lemon in a dish or bowl, and pour the cream upon it, stirring it till quite cold.
Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, A New System of Domestic Cookery; 1806

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Lemon Water: A Refreshing Drink

lemon cream

Lemon water may be the staple complimentary drink of American restaurants, but the drink actually has British origins.  A recipe for Lemon Flavored Water (A Refreshing Drink) appears in Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s New System of Domestic Cookery, surprisingly, perhaps, under the heading “Cookery for the Sick”. There are, however, many benefits to drinking water with lemon, especially when made, as Mrs. Rundell suggest, with warm or hot water.

For a comprehensive analysis of the benefits of drinking lemon water you will definitely enjoy this article from our friends at Positive Health Wellness

Lemon Water

One blogger even went so far as to suggest 10 Medical Benefits to Drinking Lemon Water, including clear skin, fresh breath, system cleansing properties, weight loss and even enhanced hydration, among others.  During the summer months, it can be difficult to drink as much as is recommended (at least 8 8-oz glasses a day). With so much to recommend it, I’m surely inspired to try one of these Regency recipes to perk up my routine. Continue reading Lemon Water: A Refreshing Drink

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A Regency-Inspired Lemon Ice Recipe

lemon ice

A Regency-Inspired Lemon Ice Recipe

“The Hattons’ & Milles’ dine here today– & I shall eat Ice & drink French wine and be above Vulgar Economy.”
Jane Austen
July 1, 1808

Fanny Dashwood Ice Cream has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. Some legends attribute the first frozen dessert to Emperor Nero, of Rome. It was a mixture of snow (which he sent his slaves into the mountains to retrieve) nectar, fruit pulp, and honey. Another theory states that Marco Polo, 13th century bard and adventurer, brought recipes (said to be used in Asia for thousands of years) for water ices to Europe from the Far East.

Whatever the story, it is now an established treat- not just in the summer (or winter when ice is plentiful)- but all year long. Traditional ice cream was not invented until sometime in the 1830’s. In fact, the Ice Cream Maker wasn’t even patented until 1843 (by a woman, no less!) Even still it was a popular treat among those who could afford it. During his reign in the 1600s, King Charles I of England offered a cook a job for life if he made him ice cream and kept it a secret. George Washington loved ice cream so much that he ran up a $200 bill for the dessert treat one summer in the late 1700s and Dolly Madison served ice cream in the White House at the second inaugural ball in 1812.

The key factor in the manufacture of ice cream was ice. Where was it to come from? In the early 19th century importation of ice started from Norway, Canada and America, this made ice cream readily available to the general public in the UK. Ice was shipped into London and other major ports and taken in canal barges down the canals, to be stored in ice houses, from where it was sold to ice cream makers. This burgeoning ice cream industry, run mainly by Italians, started the influx of workers from southern Italy and the Ticino area of Switzerland to England.

While innumerable recipes abound (the first one appearing in 1718, the easiest to concoct are “Ices” similar to today’s Italian Ices. Light and refreshing, they make a perfect summer treat. Ices have no dairy content, where Sorbet has a slight amount of cream and ice Cream is based entirely on diary products.

Photo by Michael Gordon

Lemon Ice Recipe
2 cups sugar
4 cups water
1 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp grated lemon rind
Dash of Salt

  1. In a saucepan, combine sugar, salt, water and lemon rind.
  2. Boil for 5 minutes. Cool.
  3. Add lemon juice to cooled sugar water.
  4. Churn freeze (in Ice Cream maker) or pour into a dish and cover. Freeze at least 6 hours. Break frozen mixture into chunks. Place chunks in food processor; process until smooth. This method produces more of a “smoothy” texture. Makes 1/2 gallon of lemon ice.

If Churn Frozen or slightly stiff, this looks lovely served inside half of a lemon. Simply cut your lemons in half lengthwise before beginning process. Squeeze out the juice to be used in the recipe, cut a small slice of peel off the bottom of the lemon half so that it sits upright. Scoop out excess pulp and membrane, cover in plastic until ready to fill with frozen mixture. Garnish with Mint and berries.

 

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Lemonade

The first lemonades were created in the 1540s in Paris. Lemonade, in its uncarbonated form, is among the oldest of commercial soft drinks, dating at least back to the 17th century. In Paris in 1676, a business called the Compagnie de Limonadiers was formed and granted monopoly rights to sell lemonade, which their vendors dispensed in cups from tanks carried upon their backs. The French term limonade has since come to mean “soft drink” in many languages.

For centuries, the drink of Summertime, this recipe comes from The House Servant’s directory, originally published in 1827 by Robert Roberts. The directions are easily followed today to create and authentic and refreshing drink.

Excellent Lemonade
Take one gallon of water, put to it the juice of ten good lemons, and the zeasts of six of them likewise, then add to this one pound of sugar, and mix it well together, strain it through a fine strainer, and put it in ice to cool; this will be a most delicious and fine lemonade.

Classic Lemonade for Six
1 cup sugar
6 cups water (divided)
1 cup lemon juice (or the juice from 6 lemons)
Lemon slices for garnish

Make a “simple syrup” by heating sugar and 1 cup of the water in a small saucepan until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat.

Stir together the remaining water, lemon juice and simple syrup. Make adjustments to taste. Chill for an hour, or add ice to cool.

Serves 6.

Historical information from Wikipedia

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