As Americans of all ages prepare to celebrate our nation’s independence, no doubt our minds go to the Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, my personal favorite Thomas Jefferson, and our first president, George Washington. Thanks to a fable involving George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, I associate cherries with the Fourth of July. After all, what is more American than cherry pie?
While cherry pie may well be American in origin (although even this is open for debate), cherries certainly are not. Both sweet and sour cherries are indigenous to the Mediterranean, in particular in southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. The species name for the sweet cherry, avium, refers to the birds who helped deposit cherry pits (let’s not think about how) to various regions. Ancient Greeks were likely the first to domesticate sweet cherries.
Early European settlers brought cherries to America in the 1600s. Over time the fruit was distributed throughout the thirteen colonies. Thomas Jefferson grew cherries, I’ll have you know. As pioneers pushed further west, cherries followed, eventually traveling all the way to Washington state! In 1875, the Lewelling family of Oregon invented the Bing cherry. Unlike previous varieties, Bing cherries could safely travel without bruising. Like other sweet cherries however, Bings are fussy. They can only grow in warm, dry places and rain and humidity will make them crack open.
America’s sour cherry industry began in the mid- nineteenth century, taking root in Michigan. Sour cherries are very perishable, making them impossible to transport and sell in stores. Thanks to advances in technology during the early 20th century, sour cherries could be sold frozen or canned.
So what makes cherries American? Perhaps it’s the George Washington fable. Perhaps it is the fact that they are bright red like the stripes of our flag. Regardless of the reason, cherries have certainly found their place at the American table.
For further reading:
Smith, Andrew, “Cherries.” The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, ed. Andrew Smith, 206-7. New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.
I’m lucky to have lived in two regions where sour cherries grow well: Door County, WI and right outside of D.C. in Maryland. If you do not feel like going to pick yopur own cherries, check your local farmer’s market. If fresh sour cherries are not available, look for frozen or canned varieties.
This recipe makes just the right amount for 4-6 people. If you plan to have more guests at your 1776 viewing party, simply double the ingredients and use a larger baking dish.
2 cups fresh sour cherries
¾ cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup oats
½ cup brown sugar
1 stick butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1) Pit the cherries. No cherry pitter? That’s ok…I certainly don’t have space for one in my kitchen. Instead, we used paper clips. Simply pierce the paperclip into the stem-end of the cherry and scoop out the pit.
2) Combine cherries, sugar, and flour and set aside.
3) In another bowl, mix oats, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Cut in butter by using two knives to “cut” butter into the dry ingredients. Butter chunks should eventually be pea-sized.
4) Lightly coat a 8×5 inch pyrex with butter or cooking spray. Pour cherry mixture into pan. Top with oat blend.
5) Bake for 35-45 minutes at 350 degrees.
6) Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Might I suggest Thomas Jefferson’s?