July 2, 2019
The item which caught my attention for this week’s blog is the amusing ‘contest’ of cherry pit spitting. Yes, it’s a thing.
Held annually in Eau Claire, Michigan, since 1974, the record ‘spit’ of a cherry pit is 93 ft 6.5 inches. The competition has been dominated by one family with the patriarch, Rick Krause, holding the record for longest spit (over 72 feet) until 1993. Since then, his son, Brian ‘Pellet Gun’ Krause has won 10 times with his record breaking discharge occurring the first week of July in 2003. In recent years Brian’s sons have also competed.
Others have stepped up to put their spitting skills to the test, but the Krause family continues to dominate.
It is appropriate, therefore, as we celebrate all things red, white, and blue this week, to pay tribute to one of my favorite red things: the cherry.
Every July I can hardly wait for the harvest of this fruit to begin in the Yakima Valley. For there is truly nothing better than picking a cluster of the ruby orbs and (after they’re cleaned off) biting into the soft, juicy flesh. As a fan of the sweet varieties such as Bing and Sweetheart, an explosion of flavor reminds me how much I’ve missed them since the previous year.
The cherry has a long history of cultivation with evidence that the fruit has been grown since prehistoric times. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“The English word cherry derives from Old Northern French or Norman cherise from the Latin cerasum, referring to an ancient Greek region, Kerasous (Κερασοῦς) near Giresun, Turkey, from which cherries were first thought to be exported to Europe. The indigenous range of the sweet cherry extends through most of Europe, western Asia, and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed throughout its range since prehistoric times. A cultivated cherry is recorded as having been brought to Rome by Lucius Licinius Lucullus from northeastern Anatolia, also known as the Pontus region, in 72 BC.
Cherries were introduced into England at Teynham, near Sittingbourne in Kent, by order of Henry VIII, who had tasted them in Flanders.
Cherries arrived in North America early in the settlement of Brooklyn, New York (then called ‘New Netherland’) when the region was under Dutch sovereignty. ”
In the United States, the first record of cherry trees being planted was 1639.
Sweet cherries are grown most successfully in Washington, Oregon, California, Wisconsin, and Michigan (hence the location of the cherry pit spitting contest). Most sour cherry varieties are grown in Michigan, Utah, New York and Washington.
To successfully grow cherries, the climate must have cold winters although varieties have been developed recently which have allowed California to compete in cherry production. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Most cherry varieties have a chilling requirement of 800 or more hours, meaning that in order to break dormancy, blossom, and set fruit, the winter season needs to have at least 800 hours where the temperature is below 45 °F (7 °C). “Low chill” varieties requiring 300 hours or less are Minnie Royal and Royal Lee, requiring cross-pollinization, whereas the cultivar, Royal Crimson, is self-fertile. These varieties extend the range of cultivation of cherries to the mild winter areas of southern US. This is a boon to California producers of sweet cherries, as California is the second largest producer of sweet cherries in the US.”
My relationship with the cherry has not always been an enjoyable one, however. In the 1970’s, my father took over managing a cherry orchard which my grandfather – a banker – had gotten as way of repayment of a loan gone bad some years earlier. In those years Dad had two jobs: Junior High School history teacher and orchardist. My first summer ‘job’ as a teenager was picking cherries.
By early July in Yakima the weather usually turns quite warm. It is common for there to be a spate of days when the thermometer inches into the upper 90’s and low 100’s. It’s then that the cherries ripen and harvest begins. For the pickers, work commences shortly after daybreak while the orchard is still cool.
One summer, with my then boyfriend and his younger sister, we arrived – along with all the migrant workers – to begin our job. Each person was assigned a tree, given a ladder and a bucket. Now when I say bucket, we are not talking about a pail like those favored by children at the beach. Nope. The metal buckets I knew held a lot of cherries, some 4 1/2 gallons worth, and it seemed to take forever to fill one up.
Picking cherries requires a delicate method. You must hold the fruit at the very top of the stem (stem less cherries are not saleable in the fresh market) and gently twist so that the stem is removed from the branch without pulling the spur off the tree. Then you place – do NOT drop – the fruit into the bucket. Lather, rinse, repeat. My rough estimates are thus: 80 cherries for a gallon times 4.5 gallons equals 360 cherries for one bucket. It takes a long time to pick 360 cherries plus, with one’s assigned ‘tree’, you also had to climb up 12 to 15 feet while balancing a bucket of heavy fruit.
Now what, you may ask, is ‘the spur’?” It’s a knobby growth at the end of a branch and if it’s pulled off that branch will not produce cherries the next year. My father the orchardist was rather persnickety about those spurs being preserved.
By noon time – having been there picking since 5 a.m. – the heat would have arrived and I would have picked… seven buckets of fruit. That’s 2,420 cherries each day of harvest… and be paid seven whole dollars. Some of the migrant workers could pick up to 200 buckets a day. I’ve never figured out how.
Okay, the job truly sucked. Although seven bucks went farther in nineteen seventy something than it does today. But it wasn’t a lot of money.
My experience as a cherry picker makes me appreciate the delicious fruit even more. When my sister brought a bag of the freshly picked delights to me yesterday, it was a taste of heaven. For the next few weeks I will jealously guard my cherries, making the bounty last until late July. By then I will have satisfied my craving for the fleshy fruit for another year.
The best part? I didn’t have to pick them!
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