From The Book of Difficult Fruit, which was published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
My mother’s sister died of breast cancer when she was thirty-four and I was eight. I thought she’d caught the disease from eating maraschino cherries, a belief no one corrected because I never said it out loud. Eventually, in time that passed too quietly or too gradually to notice, I stopped believing she died from processed food. At no time did I stop eating maraschino cherries. This was, in a way, like smoking would be later: an abstract poison whose intake, because it had not yet killed me, made me immortal.
The story is often told this way: The maraschino cherry as we know it was invented at Oregon State University during Prohibition to garnish virgin cocktails. Real maraschino cherries were historically a Croatian delicacy made from Marasca cherries, a sour variety that’s still grown and prized today. True maraschino liqueur is distilled from Marascas and their crushed pits, then combined with cane syrup and aged. Imitation maraschinos have been made in the United States since the turn of the twentieth century, with a variety of nonalcoholic brines. In the 1920s, East Coast maraschino manufacturers ignored the Queen Anne cherries grown in Oregon and Washington because they went to mush when preserved. Enter OSU’s cherry whiz: after years of experiments, the professor Ernest Wiegand discovered that adding calcium salts to cherry brine kept the cherries plump. After 1940, the FDA decided it was lawful to call imitation nonalcoholic maraschino cherries just plain “maraschino cherries”—by then, U.S. consumers assumed maraschinos were, as they are described by the FDA today, “cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor.”
In the United States, the bitter-almond oil needed to make maraschinos is usually derived from apricot kernels, not bitter almonds, unless the flavor is produced synthetically in a lab. True bitter almonds have higher concentrations of the chemical that creates the flavor, amygdalin, than apricot pits do, but bitter almonds are harder to find and illegal to sell in the United States because of their toxicity. A bottle labeled “pure” bitter-almond oil bought Stateside is likely made from apricots. The pits of cherries, plums, and peaches contain amygdalin, too, though in smaller concentrations, which means their almond flavor is not as strong. It remains common for cherry-pie recipes to recommend a teaspoon of “pure,” “real,” or “imitation” almond extract to gesture at the bittersweet flavor of cherry pits without risking their potential poison.
Amygdalin is perhaps better known as laetrile or B17, a notorious quack cure for cancer. At no time did my aunt consider amygdalin a possible cure, though evidence-based medicine didn’t save her either.
Labeling food toxicity is a tricky business. One argument made during a third round of cocktails by an employee of an international fruit company to which I once sold my image, voice, and recipes is that this company, which might otherwise support legislation for GMO labeling, was against it for fear that labels would also have to list the naturally occurring chemicals in non-GMO produce. The public would see arsenic, solanine, cyanide, and become terrified of fruit.
Oxalic acid, for example, is found in buckwheat, spinach, sorrel, and rhubarb. Rhubarb recipes often warn readers to stay away from the leaves because they contain poisonous amounts of oxalic acid, but they never mention that rhubarb leaves taste terrible, which mitigates the danger of accidentally eating a dangerous amount. According to Bon Appétit, a 130-pound woman would need to eat ten pounds of bitter rhubarb leaves to have an adverse reaction, which could include a burning mouth and throat, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, cardiovascular failure, a coma, and death.
If we can’t blame maraschino cherries for my aunt’s cancer, what should we blame? TV waves? Anxiety? Rage? Years after she died tragically young (but not from eating processed food), I started a new July ritual: make maraschino cherries the old-fashioned way, free of food coloring and calcium salts, preserved for cocktails year-round. I start with four or five pounds of fresh sour cherries and use a real cherry pitter, a contraption that screws onto a standard canning jar and catches the pits. My husband Sam and I drink Manhattans while we pit, served his favorite way: on the rocks with the previous year’s maraschino cherries, never citrus. I combine the pitted cherries with a bottle of Luxardo maraschino liqueur and heat them briefly, because I read somewhere that I’m supposed to do that. Then I seal them in jars with some of the pits to add a dash of benzaldehyde. Over the rest of July and part of August, the maraschinos’ candy red will fade to a serious mauve. That’s how we know they’re ready, globes of liqueur-logged fruit that taste of what they once held safe at their centers. Summer glow and fair warning, true cherry and almost almond, promise and poison from deep in their seeds.