I could top a turd with whipped cream and a cherry and your father would eat it, my grandmother says.
There is no evidence this is true, but Dad does love cherries.
Maraschino cherries were historically a Croatian delicacy made of Marasca cherries, a sour variety that’s still grown and prized today. True maraschino liqueur is distilled from Marascas and their crushed pits, then combined with cane syrup and aged. To make your own liqueur at home, crush sweet or sour cherries, cover them and their pits with sugar, drown everything in vodka, and let time do the rest. Strain before serving. Use this elixir to store whole sour cherries and you’ll have made something close the original maraschino.
The story’s often told this way: The maraschino cherry as we know it was invented at Oregon State University during the Prohibition to garnish virgin cocktails.
In truth, “imitation” maraschinos had been made in the United States since the turn of the century, with a variety of nonalcoholic brines. In the 1920s, East Coast maraschino manufacturers imported their cherries from Italy, ignoring Oregon and Washington’s crop because they went to mush when preserved. Enter OSU’s cherry wiz: After years of experiments, Professor Ernest Wiegand discovered that adding calcium salts to cherry brine keeps cherries plump. Modern maraschinos are bleached, preserved in a variation on Wiegand’s sweet brine, and dyed with FD&C Red 40, a food coloring that has been accused of triggering ADHD in children. No study has conclusively proved that link.
Nonalcoholic maraschino cherries are flavored with extract of bitter almond, a flavoring agent that usually comes from apricot pits, since a true bitter almond is so cyanide-laced that twenty of them could kill an adult and five could kill a child.
There are also small amounts of cyanide—or, more precisely, compounds that react with the water of your body to produce cyanide—in the pits of apricots and peaches.
I was eight when my aunt died of breast cancer. She was thirty-three. My belief that she’d caught the disease from eating hot dogs and maraschino cherries wasn’t corrected, because I never said it out loud. Eventually, in time that passed too quietly or too gradually to notice, I stopped believing she died from processed foods. At no time did I stop eating maraschino cherries.
This was, in a way, like smoking would be later: an abstract poison whose intake, because it had not yet killed me, made me immortal.
Half my neighbor’s sour cherry tree grew over our fence, which made that half ours by law no matter what she said. During a year of normal weather, the cherries would ripen the week of 4th of July. There was a five-day window when I could pick them and they’d be good. After that, they’d darken and soften and fall all over the back deck.
Fallen cherries attracted birds, which attracted my cat, who was named after a cleaning supply—Swiffer—because he looked like one. He would attack and eat those birds and leave their feet and beaks by the door for me. This became, in our household, the graffiti of mid-summer.
The cherries from my half of the neighbor’s tree were solid and sour and no good raw, no treat for the picker to eat. They made great pie.
In the absence of a genuine cherry pitter, the pointy end of a chopstick will do. Press the tip into the pit at the cherry’s bottom. When the pit tears loose, drag it out by the stem. Discard the stems and save the pits. You can use them to make simple syrup, vinegar, cream infusions, and almond-flavored jams from their kernels.
Mahlab is a Mediterranean spice made of cherry kernels that have been extracted from the pits and roasted or boiled to remove the cyanide. When crushed and sprinkled over pastries, it tastes like marzipan, but taken straight from the Penzey’s jar, it tastes like pine nuts, then like bitter wood. Like most spices, its flavors don’t emerge if they’re confronted directly.
The compound that reacts to the water in your body to produce cyanide, in that same chemical reaction, also produces benzaldehyde, a nontoxic chemical prized for its almond scent. It’s common for cherry pie recipes to recommend a half teaspoon or so of the extract made from benzaldehyde, for it imitates the bittersweetness of the pits without risking their potential poison.
One argument from large food companies who might otherwise support legislation for GMO labeling is that clear labeling will have to list the naturally occurring chemicals in non-GMO produce too. The public will see the arsenic, the solanine, the cyanide, and become terrified of fruit.
Oxalic acid, for example, is found in buckwheat, spinach, sorrel, and rhubarb. Rhubarb recipes often mention that one should stay away from the leaves because they contain poisonous amounts of oxalic acid. They should also mention that rhubarb leaves taste terrible, which mitigates the danger of accidentally eating them. According to Bon Appetit , a 130-pound woman would need to eat ten pounds of rhubarb leaves to have an adverse reaction, which could include burning mouth and throat, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, cardiovascular failure, coma, and death.
One night, in a fit of alcoholic rage, my friend chopped his cherry tree down. It happened a week after his Independence Day barbecue, when I had sat under his tree, drinking and picking sweet Bings that hung just above my head. When he told me, I looked at him like he’d murdered his dog. They made such a mess, he said.
When picking cherries, be careful not to strip the spur where the stems connect to the tree, or fruit will not grow as readily next year. If canning or baking the cherries, cut them from the tree, leaving half the stems on the branch to preserve the spurs and half the stems on the cherries to preserve the cherries.
In our new neighborhood, a family down the block had immaculate sour cherry trees on their fence-line but for some reason did not pick them. We decided to ask if we could. An old woman answered the door. Her husband had planted the trees ten years ago. He was dead now.
I’ll make you a pie, I said to her daughter, who translated my offer into Russian. In the foyer, a little boy was sprawled out on his stomach, flushed and asleep on the bench where we would have taken off our shoes had we been invited in. You don’t need to make her a pie, her daughter said. But you can pick the cherries. My cutoff shorts kept riding up as I moved, exposing the soft insides of my thighs. Her eyes followed my hand as I grabbed the cloth and pulled it down.
When we came back the next week the cherries were perfect, too perfect, ready to fall and falling all over the sidewalk. We rang the doorbell to say hello. A new daughter appeared.
Her mother didn’t remember us. The daughter wanted us to go away but would not say so. I’m going to make you a pie, I said to the old woman. No, not necessary, the new daughter said. Really, I don’t mind! I said. Maybe we can exchange recipes. The women did not scowl but they did not smile either. Wash the cherries before you eat them, the daughter warned. They’ve been sprayed.
While we picked, the boy who’d been sleeping last time ran out of the house with his sister and joined us beneath the trees. Do you like cherries? I asked the little girl. She refused to say. She grabbed a cherry from the dirt and chucked it at her brother. A man in a suit pulled up in a minivan and said something in Russian that made them go inside and come back out with nicer clothes on. The rest of the family emerged from the house, dressed for church. I’ll bring the pie next week, I said as they passed by. The man smiled; the daughter scowled; the mother ignored us; they drove off.
To make Croatian-style maraschinos, wash and pit fresh sour cherries. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, cover the cherries in twice their volume of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat immediately and jar. Add one cherry pit to each jar. There is enough benzaldehyde in a single pit to add flavor, but not enough cyanide to cause harm. Store in the refrigerator. The longer the cherries sit, the better they’ll taste.
While I made cocktail cherries with the old woman’s fruit, she erected a chain-link fence around her trees. Branches still arched over the ugly metal, dropping all the cherries we had not picked onto the sidewalk. They rotted there; the birds got them; we smeared them beneath our feet and tracked them home on our shoes. The mess was appalling. They didn’t want a pie, I told myself. They didn’t deserve one.
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