Entropy. Anyone remember that term from high school? I was introduced to the term in freshman physical science: it was an enlightening experience and, along with original sin, explained much about the workings of the world. Entropy: the gradual but unpredictable decline of order into chaos.
Entropy explains August in Missouri. Our gardens have slumped; the maturing fields of grains are marred by leaf disease; weeds poke up through the canopy. Lawns are a mass of rampant water grass. Disorder. Chaos. That will be the state of our landscape until harvest ends the madness and the world settles into winter.
In the fruit country of northern Michigan, August is harvest. Driving through this lovely countryside, you pass row after row of trees laden with apples, blushing gold and pink, and fruit stands with baskets of peaches and pints of sweet black cherries. Ahh..we Missourians cannot resist a sweet cherry; we wait eagerly each summer for them to appear in our stores. On a whim, we pull over to a serve yourself (help wanted!) fruit stand and buy a pint, enjoying the sweet treat and pitching the pits out the window as we drive….
Cherry immersion! Salmon with cherry barbecue sauce for supper and later on, an afternoon of golf on a course built through a cherry orchard. Tourists we may be, but we are also farmers, and curious about cherries as a crop, not just as the raw material for one of Lee’s summer pies.
This is just the tip of the cherry iceberg. I can’t resist taking home jars of cherry salsa and the barbeque sauce, unmistakably cherry chunky and cherry red, but you might eat a Michigan cherry as dessert in your holiday fruitcake, your black cherry ice cream, or in a myriad of other treats topped or decorated with a Maraschino cherry!
Many of the best beloved cherry concoctions are as man made as the machines that harvest them. The rarity and expense of true ‘Maraschino’ cherries encouraged cherry processors to democratize the treat by brining the fruit until it was a pale version of its former self, then infusing it with syrup and color until every cherry was the beloved hue children envision atop a hot fudge sundae. Candied cherries are super sweet, too, one of the reasons a fruitcake passes from generation to generation.
Cherry harvesting is an intricate mechanical ballet. Machines drive alongside the cherry trees through the rows, stopping at each tree. One enfolds the trunk; both are fitted with baffles that direct the bouncing fruit toward the conveyor in the middle. When the machines are in place, a vigorous shaking ensues, but for mere seconds, then the machines separate, and move on to the next tree. The fruit runs up the conveyor into bins of water; each bin can hold 1000# of cherries. The water allows sticks and leaves to float to the top and be picked out before the cherries leave the orchard. Another type of picker drives up to a tree, unfolds like an umbrella or dragon wings around the trunk, then shakes the tree and gathers the cherries onto a conveyor. These harvesters can pick 4 trees a minute. It takes me a half hour on a ladder and dozens of cherries on the ground to fill an ice cream bucket! Whether combining corn or harvesting fruit, the imaginations of the engineers have devised some amazing labor saving machines.
In today’s supercharged food climate, it is deemed insufficient to be beautiful and tasty; a food must cure what ails ye as well. Dried cherries and cherry concentrate (especially from tart cherries) are touted for its antioxidants and melatonin, as well as helping to ward off Alzheimer’s. I’m all for sleeping better, and Lord knows, forgetfulness is a plague, but something as versatile and miraculous as a cherry, or any fruit that appears like a Christmas in July present, shouldn’t have to wave its flag like a medicine man.
Cherry trees begin bearing between three (for tart, or what we call, pie cherries) and seven years (for sweet varieties). We saw orchards in all stage of life, from three foot saplings with drip lines to ensure success to trees nearing the end of their 25-30 years of useful life. At any age, they make a graceful landscape, a testament to husbandry at the highest level.
‘The sweet things in life, to you were just loaned
So how can you lose what you’ve never owned?
Life is just a bowl of cherries
So live and laugh at it all.’
Ray Henderson and Lew Brown
In other words, just enjoy Blake’s personal favorite, the cherry fudge….