The beginning of summer here in my town will be punctuated for me by the ripening of cherries. Around and often exactly at Summer Solstice, the cherries arrive at the farmer’s market just a couple of blocks from my house: deep dark Bing, rosy Rainier, regal Queen Anne. Around town the old fruit trees once indispensible to a household also sag with fruit—often what people here call “pie cherries”—bright red and tart. I once spent an evening out at a friend’s picking those with her and her 3 year old, in anticipation of Winter pie. The three year old is now a teenager, and those hopes for pie have shifted, but I still love the cherries. Several years ago I purchased an old-fashioned cherry pitter, the kind you use with your hand that pits one cherry at a time.
Last year a tree of Rainer cherries my long-gone neighbor planted decades ago was bursting with cherries, mostly at the level of what would begin the second story of my house. Another neighbor, younger, who trims trees for a living, and his wife, parked their truck under the bounty and placed a ladder in the truck bed, picking cherries for several of us. Even the students about to move out who lived closest to the tree were enchanted, and made pie before they left.
For me, cherries mean the sweetness of summer opening its arms, and the congregating of happy faces after a long Winter waiting for just such moments. Long ago, long before I ever dreamed I’d live in a rural town in Northern Idaho full of cherry trees (before I even would have believed such a place existed anywhere else but the movies), my dearest friend in graduate school introduced me to the phrase “picking cherries.” It was her way of describing when friends get together after a long while, and have a lot to tell each other, and get excited at each new topic. I loved the idea that sharing things in conversation could be as sweet as popping a cherry into my mouth. About 14 years ago I was involved in a wonderful women’s gathering that met 4 times a year: Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, Fall Equinox, and Winter Solstice. It was never exactly the same group of women, though it was always rather large. We’d have a potluck and a ceremony honoring the beginning of the season. Though we don’t gather anymore, our connection to one another still runs deep, and has found its expression in other meaningful ways. One year I found myself at the “planning” meeting for the upcoming Summer Solstice gathering. I suggested that instead of using a talking stick, we could (hopefully, if the growing season permitted) pass around a basket of cherries, and have each women pick one out (or two, or three—here we started laughing), as she shared her reflections on the season. We all thought this would be fun, and so for the weeks leading up to it, Nancy and I, who had volunteered to bring the cherries, would hope to see them at market before the big day. They made it just in time.
In the summer of 2010, as I was beginning to write so many of these Little Victories Over Multiple Sclerosis, I had a very personal one with cherries. Looking back on it now, I call that time “The Summer of the Smoothie.” Because she had spoken at one of Dr. McDougall’s Advanced Study Weekends, I had read Amy Lanou’s book, Building Bone Vitality. She has some lovely smoothie recipes in it, and I was enjoying trying those out. One morning I found myself having what I called the following little victory and good save:
“Last night I pitted a cup of bing cherries to put in my morning smoothie (variations on Amy Lanou’s great fruit smoothie suggestions in Building Bone Vitality). I thought I checked each cherry to be sure the pit was removed. I even cut some of them in half. But somehow I ended up with one, or a piece of one, that went into the blender. Though I listened, I did not hear a cherry pit jostling around the blade, and I congratulated myself for a job well done. The smoothie was an exquisite wine color, deepened in flavor with a tablespoon of carob powder. I was rather in a hurry to enjoy it. It was kind of thick, so I was alternating between spooning it and drinking it. Works better to spoon, gives my swallowing more time to feel the cold and adjust. As I did this, I noticed a very small sharp piece of something I was able to retrieve before swallowing it—drats! A piece of cherry pit. But let’s go back to that previous statement: I noticed a very small sharp piece of something that I was able to retrieve before swallowing .THAT I WAS ABLE TO RETRIEVE BEFORE SWALLOWING. THAT I WAS ABLE TO RETRIEVE BEFORE SWALLOWING. And not once. But again. And again. The danger zone was up at the top of my mouth, toward the back of the roof where the muscles just want to jerk and send things back too quickly. All this had been documented in a swallow study the year of my diagnosis (1996). At that time, I was advised to pulverize my food and cut down on eating things I could choke on; that is, all the things I liked: apples, crunchy veggies, salad, etc. I thought right, I’m not going to live on Ensure. Glad I didn’t listen. But also glad the swallow therapist taught me how to close my windpipe by tucking my chin down while chewing. Anyone who’s known me during the years since diagnosis who has eaten with me may have seen me choke. There’s nothing like seeing the alarm that registers in someone’s eyes when that happens. Or the time I was alone and tried to eat a raw green bean from the garden. I steamed them after that. This time, the pieces of cherry pit came up in the spoon, sometimes hidden, sometimes visible. When they were visible, I picked them out. When they weren’t, I felt for them and found them, and was able to get them out. I choked on not a one. Not a one.
Although next time I will cut all cherries in half, this is one of those HUGE little victories. To be able to feel the roof of my mouth struggle to do it, but hold still, and not throw the sharp bit back into my throat or airway. Not automatic, but oh, how much BETTER THAN IT WAS. I just don’t know how to emphasize this enough.
My friend Jean and I used to laugh about my having to tuck my chin down, and she’d tease me that she would have to get under the table and talk up to me so I could look at her while she was talking. Of course as a speech pathologist herself she totally understood why it was necessary, but now that I’m typing this I am more astounded to note that although I may have lowered my head in my efforts not to swallow cherry pit pieces, but I don’t remember doing it. So maybe there was something automatic about the hesitation and feel for each sharp piece. Oh, that would be so wonderful for that to heal, even a little. . .or for the fluctuation of its function to be less wild.”
In celebration of being able to swallow, and the blessing of another summer on its way, here is a treatment of frozen cherries so easy and delightful you’ll be licking your fingers and loving every minute of it.
“Dusted” Frozen Cherries
pitted, frozen cherries
1 tbs of carob powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Combine the carob powder, cardamom, and cloves in a small bowl. Roll each cherry in in the sweet, spicy “dust” until covered. Taste, and be transported. Offer them to someone you love you haven’t seen in a while, and catch up on all you’ve been missing!!
Note: The carob is heavenly in this “cherry dust,” but if you are a person who can do cocoa powder, give that a try. I imagine you won’t be disappointed. Don’t have frozen cherries? Dust some halved pitted medjool dates instead. Equally divine.