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A zest for life: How lemonade saved Paris from the plague

Limonadiers were French vendors who sold lemonade from tanks on their backs.Staeske Rebers

Here at the start of summer, the mind turns naturally to long sunny days refracting into night; barbecues, beaches, and beer; front porches and lemonade. We never wonder where these enablers of our leisure came from, what their stories might look like. So, in the interest of remedying that just a little, I’d like to tell a story of what lemonade was doing in Paris 349 summers ago. Lemons have been used for making drinks since before the Ancient Egyptians, are often used to detoxify, and to soothe a sore throat, but that year, the fate of Paris may have hinged on one of its lesser known properties.

In 1668, the bubonic plague, dormant for a decade, returned to France and was threatening Paris. It had been reported in Normandy and Picardy, in Soissons, Amiens, and then, terrifyingly, just downstream of the capital along the Seine, in Rouen. Everyone knew what this meant. Only a few years earlier, between 1665 and 1666, London had lost more than 100,000 people to the plague — almost a quarter of the population. Many still remembered 1630, when the disease had killed nearly a third of Venice’s 140,000 inhabitants, and almost half of Milan’s 130,000. Panic-stricken Parisian public health officials imposed quarantines and embargoes in the hope of mitigating inevitable disaster — but the dreaded pestilence never struck.


The plague that loomed over Paris was the midpoint of a 17th-century European epidemic that would go on to decimate Vienna (80,000 dead in 1679), Prague (80,000 dead in 1681) and Malta (11,000 dead in 1675). The body count in Amiens would end up topping 30,000, and almost no city in France was spared – except for Paris, which, miraculously, survived almost completely unscathed. Lemons had been used in medicine for centuries, but, this one summer in Paris, maybe everything lined up to give lemonade just enough leverage to keep tens of thousands of Parisians from joining the victims in London, Vienna, and Milan.

Ever since the late 1650s, Romans and their visitors had been treated to a huge range of soft, hard, and mixed drinks, available both in cafes and from street vendors; most popular among them was lemonade. Cost, and the limited geographical scope of suitable farmland for lemon trees, had held lemonade back, but when hardier, juicier varieties of lemon were cultivated and trade routes sped up, its price came down and its popularity skyrocketed. As befits its delicious and refreshing simplicity, soon everyone in Rome wanted lemonade on a sultry summer’s day, and vendors began to carry tanks of it around the city on their backs.


Parisian visitors to The Eternal City — such as the modestly diabolical Cardinal Mazarin (1602–61), who had succeeded the extremely diabolical Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) as chief minister to the King of France — left wondering why they didn’t have limonadiers carrying fresh beverages around their own fair city. Lemonade was already known in Paris: It had appeared in François Pierre La Varenne’s groundbreaking Le Cuisinier François (1651), a cookbook so popular and influential that it was translated into English two years after publication and remained in print for over a century. Shortly before his death, Cardinal Mazarin — who liked nothing better than new things he could tax — brought limonadiers to Paris. World-class megalomaniac that he was, even Mazarin could not have guessed that lemonade might have saved so many lives, in a few short years.


The bubonic plague that was spreading through Europe is generally thought to have been transmitted by flea bites. Many now believe that the fleas were transported aboard gerbils, themselves incidental passengers on ships from the Far East. When these gerbils arrived in Europe, their fleas spread to the extensive and ubiquitous European rat population. Fleas carrying the plague virus were distributed around cities by rats, switching from rats to humans or domesticated animals as their rat hosts succumbed to plague, and back to other rats as they killed their human hosts. Rats could just as easily blame humans for transmitting the fleas back to the rat population and, for all we know, they do. The key to this method of transmission is how intimately urban rats and humans live with each other: Everywhere people create organic refuse, so go rats. Despite the devastation associated with the bubonic plague, it is actually a surprisingly fragile construct that leads to its spread through a metropolis. Each element in the chain — flea, rat, human — has to be set up perfectly for the plague bacterium to cause an epidemic, or it will fizzle out. This is thought to be why, thankfully, the plague only struck every few hundred years, rather than constantly cycling through Europe — and it also explains why it was disrupted in Paris, in 1668.

Lemonade was not only popular, but suddenly everywhere; carried by limonadiers into every profitable corner of the city. The limonene contained in lemons (and other citrus fruits) is a natural insecticide and insect repellent. The most effective part of the lemon is the limonene-rich peel. Indeed, after centuries of discovery of chemical insect repellents, the US Environmental Protection Agency still lists 15 insecticides in which limonene is the chief active ingredient, including both general bug sprays and products for pet flea and tick control. The French were piling lemon peels in the best possible place to disrupt the flea-rat-human-rat chain: the trash. The rats would not only have been unbothered by the huge quantities of lemon, but, being omnivorous, no doubt eager to try this new flavor. It would not have been possible for fleas to survive in the general refuse or in sewers, normally good places to find rats, as they would have been loaded with limonene. Millions of desiccated fleas must have pined for those gerbils as they died in the streets, while the rats and humans enjoyed their good fortune. Paris emerged alive — and refreshed. Bureaucrats and officials tried to take credit, of course, but no one ever thought to thank those limonadiers lugging their tanks of lemonade.


So by all means, knock back as many lemonades as you like this summer — have a shandy, even — but try to remember, at least once or twice, how lemonade may just have saved Paris so many summers ago, and pour a little out for those much maligned rats.


Tom Nealon is the author of “Food Fights & Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste.” He can be reached at tom@pazzobooks.com.