Another road trip 15: a passion for cherries in the heart of cherry country

From cherries there comes a great juice

I can think of many a use

If you sugar the pits

It’s as good as it gets

Too good even for Zeus.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I am back having adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record System (EMR) I can get along with. I spent the winter in Nome, Alaska, and I just finished assignments in rural Iowa and suburban Pennsylvania. After my brother-in-law’s funeral, my wife and I are doing a bicycle tour of northern Michigan.

My passion for cherry trees dates back to the mid ‘80’s when my neighbor, a farmer, announced he’d found a cherry tree on his land, it had never been sprayed and we could eat the fruit without washing it.  At that point I had never had a sour (also called pie) cherry, and one Sunday he walked me, my wife and three small daughters up an abandoned lane, past disused and collapsing farm buildings and rusting agricultural equipment, to the ruins of a house, outside of which stood a cherry tree, in retrospect, probably a Montmorency.  Bethany made a pie and a batch of jam.  I was hooked.

The next spring I planted two North Star dwarf cherry trees.  One succumbed to a hard frost while in full bloom, the other bore well for twenty years.  Later I planted Oka Giant, Nanking, Hansen’s, and even a Lapin’s Dwarf sweet cherry (in 12 years I got 13 pieces of fruit).  As time went on I acquired friends with cherry trees who didn’t want to pick the fruit.  I dedicated large portions of my summer recreational time to processing cherries.  Eventually we named the storage portion of the basement Jamistan.

One year the children, by then old enough to go to flea markets on their own, located an antique hand crank cherry pitter, capable of multiplying my work by a factor of 5.

We would continue the frenetic rhythm of pick, pit, jam, and clean up until we reached exhaustion too many times.  A few years we would only put up four or five batches, but more than once we staggered away from a tree saying, “This year the tree won.”

One summer Sunday, after the kids had left for college, I looked at quarts of pits dripping juice into the bottom of a bowl.  Noting that juice would follow sugar just like water follows salt, I filled a sauce pan with pits, dumped in sugar by the cup, put it on the back burner to simmer while I cleaned up.

Thirty minutes later I poured a surprising amount of beautiful deep red liquid into a glass, and tasted, for the first time, real cherry syrup.  It had the flavor I’d been chasing since early childhood.

While my trees ripen at home and my neighbors, at my invitation, pick, pit and pie, the cherries here, so much further north, show not a blush of red.  I would love to be here when the crop comes in.

We bicycled past miles of cherry orchards and vineyards, and took a bike trail into Glenn Arbor.

After a large lunch at Art’s we wandered down the street to Cherry Republic, a firm that highlights local cherries into ice cream, jam, salsa, candy, chicken salad and pie, among others.

As we ate our cherry pie a la mode al fresco, I quizzed Emily (who gave me permission to use her name and recount the conversation) about growing cherries.

Most of the cherries come from Montmorency trees.  Most of the harvest is done mechanically.

I asked what they do with the marc (the leftover pits and skins).  She told me the company puts together a pitarena, with a literal ton of pits, and they let the kids play in them.

She had no idea that cherry syrup could be generated from simmering pits with sugar, and thought it a capital idea.

I didn’t mention that I don’t grow Montmorency because I don’t have room in my yard.


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