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The Memory of Lemon
by Judith Fertig

Published: 2016-06-14
Paperback : 304 pages
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The author of The Cake Therapist returns with another sweet and emotional tale featuring Neely, the baker with a knack for finding exactly the right flavor for any occasion...
A crisp tang of citrus that is at once poignant and familiar, sharpening the senses and opening the mind to ...
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The author of The Cake Therapist returns with another sweet and emotional tale featuring Neely, the baker with a knack for finding exactly the right flavor for any occasion...
A crisp tang of citrus that is at once poignant and familiar, sharpening the senses and opening the mind to possibilities once known and long forgotten...
Claire “Neely” Davis is no ordinary pastry chef. Her flavor combinations aren’t just a product of a well-honed palate: she can “taste” people’s emotions, sensing the ingredients that will touch her customers’ souls. Her gift has never failed her—until she meets a free-spirited bride-to-be and her overbearing society mother. The two are unable to agree on a single wedding detail, and their bickering leaves Neely’s intuition frustratingly silent—right when she needs it most.
Between trying to navigate a divorce, explore a new relationship, and handle the reappearance of her long-absent father, Neely is struggling to make sense of her own conflicting emotions, much less those of her hard-to-please bride. But as she embarks on a flavorful quest to craft the perfect wedding celebration, she’ll uncover a family history that sheds light on both the missing ingredients and her own problems—and illustrates how the sweet and sour in life often combine to make the most delicious memories...

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


Chapter One


Millcreek Valley, Ohio

Late March

Lydia, the twenty-something bride-to-be, sat stony faced on the settee in my front parlor.

This was not the way I wanted to start the week. Since I’d opened my bakery in Millcreek Valley’s bridal district in January, I had learned a lot about wooing, in the business sense. When I did wedding cake tastings, I took potential clients away from the cheerful light and beveled glass cases of Rainbow Cake and drew them quietly, seductively into the more intimate setting of my home right next door.

Here, I hoped they would be charmed by the French gray walls, the glint of heavy hotel silver serving pieces, the fire in the late Victorian hearth, and the little cakes, buttercream frostings, and mousses I had made for them.

But this bride was unmoved.

We had tried tiny cakes in chocolate, browned butter yellow, poppy seed, white with a faint hint of almond. We’d sampled blood orange, fleur de sel caramel, pomegranate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, pistachio, raspberry, and countless other frostings and fillings. I’d even offered a lemony cupcake with its surprise-inside blueberry filling—our signature flavor combination for March—but to no avail.

Lydia would take a tiny, polite bite and put each miniature cupcake aside on her plate. The more we tasted, the more the reject pile grew, and the more rigid her posture became.

Lydia’s mother had put a substantial deposit down and reserved the date for her daughter’s June wedding—she was lucky that I had just had a bride cancel for that exact day. Booking a wedding cake, a wedding anything, only a few months out was iffy. But money talks loudly enough. The only problem was trying to find a time when Lydia’s “wedding team” could interview her about the millions of details that went hand in hand with a society wedding.

Roshonda Taylor, wedding planner to the stars, was gorgeous as usual in her salmon sheath dress that showed off skin the color of her favorite caramel macchiato. Gavin Nichols, gifted interior designer and space planner, sipped his coffee, careful not to spill on his pristine starched shirt, navy blazer, and khaki pants. If someone had told us back in our blue-collar high school days that as thirty-somethings we would be planning a high-style wedding together, we maybe would have moved our prom from the rickety Fraternal Order of Eagles hall to somewhere more expensive and glamorous. But probably not. We learned early: You have to work with what you’ve got.

And what we had here was a crisis. Somehow we had to navigate the choppy waters between what the mother wanted and what the bride envisioned.

The bride had been putting us off for weeks. And now this.

As a new business owner, I could not afford to have unhappy high-profile clients. Word of mouth was everything to wealthy mothers and brides. Who did your flowers? Where did you get those antique lockets for the bridesmaids? Don’t use so-and-so. You never wanted to have your business name fill in the blank for so-and-so.

I refilled Lydia’s teacup with a chamomile blend and poured more French press coffee for her mother and the other wedding team professionals, who must feel like I looked. My reflection in the silver teapot cast back my auburn hair tied up in a fraying topknot, wide green eyes expanded to extra wide from anxiety, and a now-familiar Claire O’Neil Davis expression—a duck seeming to stay afloat effortlessly while paddling furiously underwater.

I just couldn’t get a read on the bride, other than the obvious.

She didn’t like my cakes.

This was a first.

I was a pastry chef with tons of haute cuisine experience, and I had enjoyed my fair share of success in New York before bringing my skills and myself back home to Millcreek Valley. Just a few short months later my signature desserts were gracing society functions, private dinners, corporate events, and glamorous galas. My wedding cakes were sought after.

So I wasn’t entirely convinced I was the problem here.

I knew that my little sample cakes and the fillings and frostings were delicious, even if Lydia couldn’t recognize it.

But I also knew that my abilities in the kitchen were only part of the secret to my success. It was my other gift, the way I could use my intuition to “read” a client through flavor, that helped me win over the crankiest and most difficult of brides. The ones like Lydia. But something was preventing me from working my usual miracles today.

Every time I tried to turn on my internal flavor Wi-Fi, I got no signal.

This was also a first.

My slightly magical palate was the way I made sense of the world. It revealed an inner state, an emotional core. Sometimes flavor answered the question I didn’t know I had. Just like Gran and my dad, I knew flavor was both a way to read people and a way to understand myself.

Should I have left my New York life behind to start again here in Millcreek Valley? A few weeks back, the comfort of sweet cinnamon had reassured me: Yes, it whispered. One step at a time.

Yet it always seemed easier to pick up on someone else’s flavorful inner state than on my own.

When I sat with clients and opened my mind to them, a taste usually came through. It might be sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. After a moment, it would blossom into a full flavor. The sweet ripeness of apricot, the sourness of a Key lime, the earthy saltiness of Mexican chocolate, the aromatic bitterness of nutmeg.

In a flash, a feeling would follow the flavor. Joy. Skepticism. Lust for life. Quiet acceptance.

And from that feeling would come a memory, a scene called back to present day. A moment whose real meaning and importance I might never fully know.

And I didn’t really need to know everything. I used my gift to see my clients’ stories so I could design desserts—in this case, a wedding cake—to fit each customer like a couture gown, not an off-the-rack dress in desperate need of alterations.

If I got the cake and filling and frosting flavors right, they would resonate with my clients, reaching them in those down-deep places where they would begin to feel that everything really would be all right.

If I got the flavors right.

I couldn’t get them right if I didn’t get an initial impression. What was the deal with Lydia? Why couldn’t I read her?

Usually, by this part of a wedding cake tasting, I’d be casting images of wedding cakes on the smooth plaster walls with my laptop, casually dropping a few celebrity client names from my New York days, and my current clients would be choosing a design.

But we weren’t there yet. And I was beginning to fear that we wouldn’t get there. I looked over at Lydia again, who sat stiff and silent.

“Sweetheart, what do you think of the lemon with the lavender? For a hot summer night, that might be very refreshing,” Mrs. Stidham asked. Her expensively cut and streaked hair and the whiff of $350 perfume from Jean Patou were at odds with her too-tight, too-short leather skirt and the animal print top. Her French manicured nails were immaculate, if impractically long.

The mother had remarried, I assumed, as Lydia’s last name was Ballou.

Lydia moved her plate, piled high with discards, from her lap to the tea table. She crossed her arms in front of her chest. Where her mother was groomed and flashy, Lydia looked like a sixties folk singer. She wore no makeup and her long, curly, mouse brown hair was parted in the middle. She had on a shapeless lace dress, which hung on her thin frame, and a short-sleeved beige cardigan. Her beautiful, dark blue eyes could probably look soulful when she wasn’t being obstinate.

“Mother,” she finally said, “I told you I didn’t want cake. I want wedding pie.”

Well, I can’t help you there, I wanted to say. My bakery was called Rainbow Cake for a reason.

Roshonda jumped in.

“I think what Lydia is trying to say is that although Neely’s—I mean Claire’s—cakes are delicious, maybe we’ve strayed too far from the Appalachian theme we talked about,” Roshonda said, giving me the eye.

Appalachian. Hmm. Why was I just hearing about this now? When I thought Appalachian, the first thing that came to mind was definitely not cake. Roshonda’s meaningful look, with a slight tilt of her head toward Mrs. Stidham, told me that this first go-round was what the mother wanted. Traditional wedding cake.

Obviously, Lydia had other ideas.

A bit reluctantly, trying to leave my bruised ego behind, I was warming to the Appalachian idea.

Bourbon and branch water. Dulcimer music. Wildflowers in jelly jars. Biscuits and country ham. That did have a certain charm.

“I know you’ve talked this over with Roshonda and Gavin, but why don’t you tell me about the kind of wedding you want,” I said to Lydia with a smile. “What is your inspiration?”

Lydia sat up straighter, unfolded her arms, and put her hands in her lap. “Some of my happiest memories growing up were the summer escapes I spent with my grandmother in the hills of northern Kentucky, along the Ohio River,” she said.

Her mother reached over and, with a dramatic gesture, took her daughter’s hand. Lydia rolled her eyes, kept her arm stiff, and didn’t lean in to her mother. Awkward.

“To be fair, Mom tried really hard. She worked two jobs to support us,” Lydia said, looking sideways at her mother and then back at me. “We lived in a tiny apartment above a bar. The neighborhood wasn’t safe, so I couldn’t go outside if she wasn’t at home. Every night, I’d try to go to sleep in spite of the drunks yowling on the sidewalk and the cigarette smoke and beer smell that drifted up through the floorboards.

“At my grandma’s in Augusta, it was like paradise. It was quiet and peaceful. Nobody bothered me. I would spend hours in the woods, by the creek, in her garden, in her skiff on the river. And that’s what I want to re-create for my wedding: that simple paradise,” Lydia said.

Her mother released Lydia’s hand, then fished around in her handbag for a handkerchief.

I gave Lydia those few moments of silence that always prompted more of the story.

“I remember the wonderful feeling I had as soon as we drove out of our crappy neighborhood,” Lydia recalled.

“You would start singing all those silly songs that you made up,” Mrs. Stidham said, twisting the handkerchief in her hands. “If you saw a blackbird, it was a song about a blackbird. If you saw a barge on the river . . .”

“‘Barge in Charge,’” said Lydia, suddenly smiling. “One of my greatest hits.”

“I still can’t get that song out of my head,” her mother said.

Lydia turned toward me. “And when we finally arrived at the ferry, I started to feel free again,” she continued.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lydia’s mother stiffen. Weddings dredged up all kinds of things. No mother wanted to be reminded that her daughter felt unsafe and unhappy as a child. Mrs. Stidham bit her bottom lip.

“As the ferry went across the river,” Lydia continued, “getting closer to the old buildings along the waterfront, I felt the wind in my hair and the pull of the river under my feet. It was like stepping back in time and going home, if that makes any sense.”

“Vangie, Lydia’s grandmother, made any place feel like home,” said Mrs. Stidham. “And she made Lydia feel safe and special, as she did for my brother and me. But as I got older, I saw another side of Augusta. I couldn’t go back to that kind of life. Small-minded people knowing your business, judging you. Like most small towns. But I understand it was probably the best part of Lydia’s childhood,” she said, tearing up. Mrs. Stidham smoothed out the handkerchief to dab her eyes. “Maybe, sweetheart,” she said, turning toward her daughter, “we could still get that sense of simple paradise if we brought in a lot of trees in big pots to the ballroom at the River Club, like Kate Middleton’s family did for her wedding at Westminster Abbey.”

“Mom, I thought we had already agreed that the River Club was out.”

One unconvincing tear managed to escape Mrs. Stidham’s false eyelashes—probably real mink or yak hair or something like that—and roll down her cheek.

A fake lime flavor, like you tasted in cheap candies, settled in my mouth. Unlike the sharp, somewhat aromatic flavor of real lime zest and juice, the fake stuff tasted like chemicals. It was the flavor I recognized as manipulation. Hmm.

I took a sip of coffee to banish it.

I studied Mrs. Stidham. I had the feeling that crying in an attractive way usually worked for her.

Lydia seemed unmoved, as I was.

I always Googled my clients before their wedding cake tastings so I was as prepared as possible. I’d found out that Gene Stidham was a self-made man, a guy who had invented a popular playing card game in the 1970s—Duo—that launched his company. He could have sold the rights very profitably to Mattel or Parker Brothers, but instead he had slowly added board games and then video games to his business portfolio. When the popularity of video games started to plateau, his company got into mobile gaming. Duo Gaming had made him a megamillionaire. To his credit, he had become a notable local philanthropist who had a soft spot for children’s charities.

It didn’t take much searching to find photographs of Gene and Cadence Stidham in evening dress, attending one big event after another. She was attractive in a nouveau riche sort of way and taller than him. He had thinning hair, glasses with clear frames, and a pleasant demeanor. Not a guy you would pick out of a crowd and say, He looks successful.

But I could still imagine how they had gotten together. Maybe, once upon a time, a down-on-her-luck single mother with a waiflike daughter had pulled at his heartstrings. I wanted to know more, but I couldn’t bear the fake lime flavor another moment. I’d try at another meeting.

At this rate, we’d have to have quite a few more meetings because we weren’t getting anywhere. I took another sip of coffee.

When I looked up, Lydia was staring at me. Everyone else was, too.

Quickly, I had to pick up the thread of our conversation. Simple paradise. Augusta. Wedding pie.

“And is there a special reason you’d like pie instead of cake for your wedding?” I asked Lydia.

“Grandma Vangie taught me how to make pie. She made the best pies.”

I nodded. “Well, I don’t have pie today, but see what you think of this.” I passed her a sugar cookie, which she—thankfully—took and began to nibble.

I had to think fast.

“Let’s start with the little things and then we can work up to wedding pie,” I suggested. “We can do these sugar cookies in virtually any shape and flavor you want for a bridesmaids’ luncheon and wedding guest favors or simply as part of the wedding dessert buffet. I have these wonderful edible transfer wafer papers that you can apply to a sugar cookie so it looks like a vintage postcard or a perfume bottle or a china pattern.”

Lydia scowled.

“But I don’t see those designs for you,” I quickly added. “I see botanical prints of Kentucky wildflowers or woodland plants like ferns on these cookies. We put the cookies in handwoven baskets so the guests can gather them like herbs from your grandmother’s garden.”

“Yes!” Lydia said, suddenly animated.

“And maybe the flavoring for the cookie could be a Kentucky flavor, maybe something that could have come from your grandmother’s garden or the woods near her house. We can figure that out later.”

Lydia beamed and turned to her mother, who looked crestfallen.


“You have to understand, Claire, that this wedding is for Lydia and Christopher, first, but it’s also a big social occasion for my husband,” said Mrs. Stidham.

“I would imagine that Mr. Stidham has a lot of friends and business associates he’d like to invite,” I said.

“My husband has been very good to Lydia and me, and I don’t want to disappoint him,” Mrs. Stidham said, twisting her handkerchief again in her lap, as the fake lime flavor started to reassert itself.

I swallowed hard, trying to banish it.

“Gene wants the best of everything for Lydia, as I do. Designer gown. Luxurious reception. The finest champagne. It’s expected from one in his position . . .” She trailed off, looking away. Her chin jutted out. She wanted her way.

I noticed that as she became upset, a hint of her Kentucky drawl returned. Interesting.

“Almost all of my big weddings feature signature sugar cookies,” I reassured her. “It’s just a question of what you do with them.”

“I do appreciate everything you and Gene are trying to do for me,” Lydia said forcefully, turning to face her mother. “But it’s my wedding. I don’t want glamour and glitz. I want something real. I want my wedding to be meaningful. You and Gene give enough big parties as it is. Can’t this be what Christopher and I want?”

We were back to the classic standoff: Bride versus Mother.

When Lydia got up to use the restroom, Mrs. Stidham whispered to us, “Isn’t it funny? I love Augusta. I truly do.”

The fake lime flavor came in on a wave.

“But having Lydia’s wedding there would be hard for me. I’ve spent most of my life trying to get away from the log cabin I was raised in, and then living paycheck to paycheck as a single mother.” Thankfully, the awful taste was ebbing again.

“Thanks to Gene,” Mrs. Stidham continued, “those days are long gone. I want to make up for everything I couldn’t give Lydia earlier in her life. She could have a destination wedding in Paris, in Tahiti, no expense spared,” she said, dabbing her eyes again. “But my daughter wants a hillbilly wedding.” view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. A recent study from the Emory University School of Medicine shows that memories can be passed on to subsequent generations through DNA. What memories, abilities, or tendencies pass through the families in The Memory of Lemon?

2. Neely’s gift allows her to sense a flavor that is a hyperlink to someone’s hidden issue. The flavor leads to an emotion and then she sees a scene from someone’s past. When she tries to resolve a difficult and classic standoff—Bride versus Mother—no flavor comes to her for a long time. Why do you think that is?

3. Do you agree with Neely’s customers? Is pie more emotional, more nostalgic than cake? Which dessert is more attached to a certain memory for you—pie or cake?

4. In flashback scenes, we see characters who are Wanderers and Healers. Which one do you think best characterizes Neely? Are there any characters who started out as Wanderers and became Healers?

5. Neely’s father, the homeless Jack O’Neil, knows he has to face a terrible Vietnam War experience in order to begin his journey toward normal life. How can reliving a horrifying experience eventually bring healing?

6. How do characters’ perceptions of the river change over time? How does Abigail Newcomb feel about the river, contrasted with her granddaughter Little Abigail in later years? What does the river mean to Lydia? To Lydia’s mother Cadence? To Neely and Ben?

7. The artist John James Audubon wandered through the American wildness and also wandered through this novel. How do the responses of Lydia and her mother to Audubon influences in the wedding underscore their differences?

8. We sense, through one of Neely’s surprise flashbacks, that Sister Agnes might have had to give up a baby before she entered the novitiate. And that the child grew into someone Neely knows well. Were you surprised?

9. Some memories come back through flavor, some through song in this novel. What prompts memories for you? A certain aroma? A song on the radio?

10. Do dessert flavors run in families? If so, what flavor is the favorite in your family? Lemon? Spice? Chocolate?

11. In a world of instant communication, Neely is forced by circumstances to send snail mail letters to her father and to Ben. What is special about a letter? How do letters deepen the relationships between Neely and her father? Neely and Ben?

12. Gran, Jack O’Neil, and Neely all share the same gift of sensing a flavor that will lead to a story that reveals something that is hidden. But each of them has experienced the gift differently. Why do you think the young Gran tasted the bitter, inky flavor of a story that had yet to happen? Why can’t Jack O’Neil “taste” things like Neely can anymore? Why does Neely have trouble deciphering the twin flavors of citrus and spice?

13. Why did Jack O’Neil feel he was helping his family by leaving them?

14. The Wanderers in this novel want to find a home. But when life changes might prompt us to move and lose touch with familiar places, where exactly is home? What is home? And how do we know when we’re there?

Suggested by Members

Discussion questions at the end of book.
by Suehobbs (see profile) 05/02/17

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

We had a brunch of eggs and lemon pastries.
by Suehobbs (see profile) 05/02/17
We thought later of restaurants in barn like settings.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The Memory of Lemon"by Suehobbs (see profile) 05/02/17

Too many characters. But it was beautiful thinking about this wedding and the vision of it was wonderful so much so that I wish I was there. The was invisioning of the tastes was interesting. Took me back... (read more)

  "The Memory of Lemon"by Silversolara (see profile) 06/24/16

Neely is back, and her bakeshop is a pleasant, delicious, heartwarming way to spend an evening of reading.

The smells, the visuals of the baked goods, and the taste of everything Ms. Fe

... (read more)

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