Thursday, February 9, 2012

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries...

“Cough," I said. "Cough cough.” It seemed natural enough to cough my lungs up at Rite Aid, where I arrived much in need of some cough syrup. Not even a week after the big spider bite (consensus says it was most likely a black widow), I had picked up my first case of bronchitis, and who knows if this was due to my body fighting off spider venom or because of several hours spent in the most crowded and poorly managed ER in Los Angeles County.

The coughs notwithstanding, at least I could still roll my eyes at the typical drug store scenario of each and every bottle of cough syrup being cherry flavored. Cherry flavored? How come the children's cough syrup is grape flavored? Adult cherry cough syrup is so vile that pharmaceutical companies must clearly only take pity on coughing children since they're the only ones given a less repulsive flavor option. As an asthmatic child, I was in need of cough syrup often and it was always cherry flavored and thankfully my parents usually bribed me to take it down with a YooHoo chaser.

I spent most of my life hating cherries by association. Which is ironic considering my sister and I spent our early years singing "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" at the Newark Y where my great-grandpa George ran the stage show. I remember loving that song, but the lyrics suggesting a positive association with cherries was lost on me. All I knew was that cherries equaled disgusting sick medicine, a fact I've been reminded of since as my mom's favorite throat lozenge is cherry and each time I visit she inadvertently puts a cherry lozenge in her mouth and its potent perfume leaves me no choice but to leave the room (thanks Mom :P).

One of life's pleasures is that not all foods become part of an eating repertoire at once, and that can lead to a fun discovery process over time. Chicken liver was a Jewish staple that I despised growing up, so the first time I had no choice but to try seared foie gras at a business dinner in 1999 (the client ordered a round of it for the table) I truly feared for my tastebuds. To my surprise, the dish was euphoric and despite any lingering duck guilt I try to enjoy it every couple of years.

The same goes with oysters. A plate of them were put before me for the first time at a Rockefeller Center tasting meeting with management and chefs in 2000. When I winced at the plate, my new boss suggested without words that I was a miscreant. Hoping to nip his assumption in the bud, I tried one. To my surprise, those fresh oysters were so incredible that now I'm a huge fan, especially when they're served with a good mignonette.

I remember the first time I tried dates, at a Brooklyn farmer’s stand around 2001. The stand's old hippie proprietor shoved a date-covered vine in my face and said, "Go ahead, try one." That first Medjool was a big slap in the face for all those years of self-inflicted date deprivation. Since then I've eaten them as a snack and made really good sticky toffee pudding with them. Which reminds me, I still need to try a local date shake in Indio, California.

Now the experience of trying fresh cherries for the first time was different than trying other new foods, only because I'd hated the idea of cherries for so long. It probably happened in New York City during a late 1990's summer at a farmer’s market, when the abundant bounty of summer fruit was everywhere along with samples. I gingerly bit into a Bing and to my amazement it was nothing at all like that horrid syrup from youth. It was just a delicious piece of fruit!

That became the summer of cherries. My friends were perplexed as to why I was obsessing about this ubiquitous fruit they’d known and loved all their lives. But it was new to me. At the market I bought dark and robust red Bings and sometimes the tart, pale yellow and pink-tinged Queen Annes to snack on or make pies with (frozen cherries work well for that too). But like most new toys, cherries eventually were taken for granted in my life. I still like them a lot, especially with all their antioxidant health qualities, but to be honest it's hard to eat a bowl of cherries for dessert when Ben & Jerry's is lurking in the freezer.

Last summer I took a day trip to the Villa del Sol cherry farm in the Leona Valley to reacquaint myself with these luscious berries. Only an hour and a half northeast of Los Angeles, having the ability to go to a cherry farm is one of the many benefits of living in Southern California. You basically just walk through the entrance, grab a bucket and start strolling the rows and rows of cherry trees and gently pluck away. I happily collected a 2/3 Bing and 1/3 Queen Anne mix. The idea was to get cherries and go home and make turnovers as if I were McDonald's. When my bucket was appropriately filled for my needs, I casually walked the rows back to the entrance. But then I saw a big tree branch hanging low due to so many ripe cherries on it, and those cherries looked different than the others I’d already picked.

The cherries on this tree had the color and shape of little hearts. I tasted one and fell in love with it (is that why it's shaped like a heart?). It had a more refined flavor than the other varieties, like a cherry plum. And the fact that it literally looked like a heart was just kinda cool. Too bad my bucket was already brimming with cherries, but wait! I had to make room for my new favorite, this mystery cherry I'd likely never see in a market, since I'd never seen it before. (Here it is, between the Queen Anne and the Bing in this photo.)

On the walk out of the farm I asked an employee what kind of cherry this was, and he said it was most likely a Brooks. Ok. The next day I made cherry turnovers using all three types of cherries. It was an important reminder that one should never judge a cherry by its incarnation as cough syrup.

Until we eat again,


  1. OMG I never ate cherries, especially those god forsaken maraschinos, because of exactly the same reason... that vile and repulsive palette experience (not WORTHY of the name taste or scent) a.k.a. cough medicine. Oh and I agree about the cough drops when home... I'd rather inhale the breath of decay than that hareeeeen odor of "cherry" cough drops... ditto Mom. Like you, I now adore REAL cherries, not fake cherry flavor. Same goes for banana and strawberry and grape even. UGH who ever thought that these "flavors" simulated the real fruit experience? I'm glad that we both were able to finally embrace that glorious bowl of cherries. Nice link about Grampa George by the way.

  2. Just got this from Wikipedia. Can you believe that this is what they do to the noble and glorious Rainier cherry that I can only get at my local farmer's market and gourmet store in season for over $10 per pound!?!?!

    Maraschino Cherry = FrankenCherry

    A maraschino cherry (play /mærəˈskiːnoʊ/ marr-ə-skee-noh or /mærəˈʃiːnoʊ/ marr-ə-shee-noh) is a preserved, sweetened cherry, typically made from light-colored sweet cherries such as the Royal Ann, Rainier, or Gold varieties. In their modern form, the cherries are first preserved in a brine solution usually containing sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride to bleach the fruit, then soaked in a suspension of food coloring (common red food dye, FD&C Red 40), sugar syrup, and other components. Green maraschino cherries use a mint flavoring.[1]