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The only constant is change ... and the lemon tree

It's a funny thing about constants. As soon as you think you've got a few anchored down for the long term, they up and disappear.

Take Burlingame Avenue, for instance, a relatively unexciting strip of retail activity about 20 miles south of San Francisco. This was the street of lunchtime dreams for we Burlingame High School students in the mid- '60s. We lolled along it on sunny spring days, munching on Corn Nuts, passing on the latest gossip and fine-tuning our date wardrobes, as seen through the windows of our favorite boutiques.

For years, Burlingame Avenue remained a fairly constant and gentle reminder of those carefree days.

Then some time in the early '80s the old Woolworth building burned down, taking half a city block of Burlingame history with it. In the years that followed, its charred remains loomed over the urban landscape, becoming the new constant I expected to see on walks along the boulevard. Until just a few years ago.

At the front end of an eight-day visit with my folks, I was anxious to take a look around.

During a stroll along Burlingame Avenue, I found myself actually negotiating crowds, something that used to occur only during the precious few shopping days leading up to Christmas. But now, groups of very trendy-looking young couples, some pushing fancy baby carriages, others with designer pooches in tow, were practically swarming the avenue.

Such lively activity was a genuine puzzle until I spotted the source of this booming commerce. Where the deserted remains of Woolworth's once stood, there was now a Banana Republic, Pottery Barn, GAP, Baby GAP, Victoria's Secret and Williams-Sonoma.

How depressing. If there ever was a street I felt was safe from this form of yuppie-driven progress, it was Burlingame Avenue. So I went home, and Mom could see right away that the experience had shaken me up. I tend to rant in these kinds of situations.

"We need to think about dinner, Janet," she said. My mother's cure for just about anything, depending on the hour of the day, is a cup of tea or a full-blown meal. Getting into the kitchen tends to put everything else in perspective. And it was true, we had guests arriving in less than two hours, so cooking was not an unreasonable activity to pursue.

"Do you feel like a Caesar salad?" I asked.

"That would be nice," said Mom. "Why don't you go pick some lemons?"

So I trotted out the back door, down the steps and over to the lemon tree. As usual, it was laden with big, juicy fruit. I peered up through its branches, gauged its height to be at least 7 feet, and wondered when it had grown so big.

"Mom, how old is the lemon tree?" I asked, unleashing half a dozen fat lemons onto the counter.

"Well, it's been there since 1958 when Grandma Skinner won it at the Coolidge School Halloween carnival," she said.

I shouldn't have been surprised since our source of lemons for as long as I can remember has always been that tree. Fresh lemonade, homemade lemon meringue pies, bags of lemons brought north on my folks' visits to Corvallis. The Roberts family has never lacked for lemons thanks to that prolific plant.

Keeping in mind that constants are not always things we can count on, I still like the idea that this grand old tree came back into my consciousness at the very moment when a street laden with memories exited. I won't make the mistake of banking on this plucky tree's future in an unrealistic manner. But 49 years is a good start.

In honor of that lemon tree, consider this variation on a classic Southern pie with its unique addition of sour cherries. It's so rich and tangy, a small slice is enough.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can e-mail her at janrd@proaxis.com.

RECIPE: Lemon Chess Pie with Cherries

11/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup fresh sour cherries, pitted, or 1 cup dried cherries (soak in hot water for 1 hour, then drain)

1 unbaked pie crust, chilled

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together the sugar, cornmeal and flour in a bowl and stir until well-blended.

Add the eggs to sugar mixture and whisk until ingredients are smooth and well-blended. Whisk in the lemon zest, lemon juice, butter, cream and vanilla.

Place the cherries in the bottom of the chilled, unbaked pie crust. Pour filling on top of cherries. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until top is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into center of the pie comes out clean.

Cool pie completely on a baking rack before slicing.

NOTE: This pie can be prepared with other dried or fresh berries. Scatter about 1/2 cup fresh (or reconstituted and drained) berries evenly over the bottom of the pie shell before adding filling.

Recipe from "The Foster's Market Cookbook," by Sara Foster.