It’s cherry time in Door County.
Orchards are abundant here, and we love watching the changes of these trees throughout the year. In late winter, when it still feels drab and hopelessly dreary, the trees begin to tinge red.
And then, in late May the blossoms are worth a drive around the county just to see the spectacle.
And now, red fruit. Thousand upon thousands of cherries hang, ready for picking.
Or, more accurately, ready for shaking. The growers have a machine that grabs the trunk, shakes off the cherries into a inverted-umbrella-type net and then collects them into the crates where they are taken for processing.
For most of the years of my life, we came here in summer, in cherry season. And though most of our days were spent on the beach and in that blue big Great Lake, for at least one afternoon we would put on old shirts and shoes and head off to a pick-your-own-cherry orchard. In less than an hour, our hands would be stained with cherry juice as our pails would fill. The ladders were fun to climb. We’d work side by side in a tree or compete for whose pail could fill faster from opposing trees. And always, it seems, we’d comment on the sight of those bright red cherries and deep green leaves against a backdrop of indigo blue sky.
And then, all those years of my childhood were repeated when I took my children back to the orchards each August to do exactly the same thing.
Then it was home to the cabin at the beach where we’d set up tables on the porch and begin pitting. All those hundreds of cherries! We’d rinse them, then one by one stab out the pit from each one with a toothpick. There are cherry pitting gadgets, but toothpicks work the best.
But this task, too, became a game, or at least a not-unpleasant activity. Because we’d chat. Sometimes grandpa would help. Sometimes an aunt would be there, or a parent’s friend, or our friends. To them, it was all new, so we’d see it through their eyes. And how bad could any chore be when the waves of Lake Michigan were the background noise, the lake breezes our fan?
The picking and the pitting culminated into something expected but nonetheless wonderful: cherry pie. My grandmother first, and then my mother, and now me: there is no question that we make them and serve them to anyone who is here during cherry time.
And beyond the pies, there was jam to be made. The next day or even later on that evening, we’d make jam. I can see them now in my mind’s eye; the particular pots my mom would use to boil jam, heat jars. I can hear her voice asking my dad to be ready with his watch to time that crucial one minute when the jam must boil ( full rolling.) I’d help her ladle hot jam, wipe rims, screw on lids. I’d help her dunk the jars into the boiling water, remove them a few minutes later, turn them upside down. Turn them right side up, and listen for the oh-so-welcome “pop” which let us know the lid had sealed.
I have lived in other places where fresh fruit grows, and I have made pies from that bounty, too; the occasional peach or apple cake or cobbler. But there is nothing in my life quite so steeped in memory and nostalgia and tradition as these cherries.
Was it that, on vacation, we had time to bake and process jam- time we didn’t have the rest of the year? Was it that the beauty of those cherry trees all around us was irresistible? Was it that the tradition of families working together in a kitchen to “put up” food was every bit as integral to vacation as those card games at night or the beach fire to watch the falling stars?
Today, I live four miles from a processing plant. For the past three years I’ve stopped by and picked up tubs of cherries as they’ve come right in from the orchards and straight from the pitting machines. Yep, already picked and pitted. So I’ve skipped a few of the traditional steps.
But today, as my hands are slightly stained from cherry juice that came as I was cutting cherries for jam and freezing cherries for the pies that we will serve all year round, I find myself nostalgic for my mother, gone now four years. She would be happy that I’m making jam, making cherry pies. She would be glad, I know, that I’m living all year round in this place of cherries.