Sunday, June 24, 2018
Cherry on top
Back in the day, maraschino cherries went in Manhattans. They were useful little items, because when the drink was drained, I could fill that awkward minute before the arrival of the next by digging out the ragged bright little red wreckage and popping them—I preferred two; more festive that way—into my mouth. Ah, life is sweet!
A small jar of the vivacious little fellows showed up in our fridge—my wife was making sundaes for her book club, one of four uses of maraschino cherries that spring to mind: cocktails, sundaes, fruit cocktails and in the center of grapefruits.
No Manhattans, sundaes or fruit cocktail lately—we stopped buying fruit cocktail when the kids hit junior high. And grapefruit is out because I habitually eat mine whole for breakfast, peeling them like an orange and eating the entire segments. No slicing in half, ergo no center to place a cherry. And no cherries, usually.
But the big yellow fruits have been so sweet lately, big-hearted soul that I am, I urge my wife to join me in partaking. She likes her grapefruits halved and segmented. A doting husband, I abandon my preference and prepare them the way she like them, fussing over the bisected citrus with a little curving serrated knife. Though recently, looking at my half, something seemed missing, and I remembered the jar of cherries, forlorn in the fridge, abandoned since the book club, without Manhattans or sundaes to stir interest (fruit cocktail we bought, ready made, from Del Monte. Nobody composes the stuff themselves out of cans of mushy pears and smooshy bits of apricots—that's how fruit cocktail started, in the 1930s, as the leavings from canning fruit).
Voila. The result looked so perfect, I had to snap a picture, and, having the photo, now must write something to occupy you on a Sunday, a perfect day for perfect grapefruit presented perfectly with pizzazz.
The obvious question: where did this odd pairing come from? The healthy, natural sour yellow grapefruit and this miniature red orb of sweet toxic shame. I remember the practice from the 1960s, which means it had to be a hold-over from the 1950s, when wives made fancy breakfasts for their husbands as part of their general program of keeping a happy home. Maraschino cherries were part of the whole Jell-o mold, Baked Alaska, parfait world of what passed for deluxe fine dining. Grapefruits were the stuff of resorts—you really had to go to Florida to get proper grapefruits, or have them ship up North in cardboard crates, as my grandmother in Miami did.
When did maraschino cherries begin being centered on grapefruits?
First you need the cherries. I guessed "maraschino" had to be Italian, like "mascarpone." Bingo. Marasca refers to a "small, black cherry" grown around Zara, once Italy, now in Croatia, according to the OED, and "maraschino" is a liqueur distilled from the marasca cherry.
The word is a little over 200 years old; Percy Bysshe Shelley puts it in the mouth of one of his characters in "Oedipus Tyrannus": "Give me a glass of Maraschino punch." The association between cherries and drinking was such that in a long list of words meaning "stewed," H.L. Mencken includes the evocative "cherry-merry" in his The American Language: Supplement One.
Neither natural cherries or cherry liquor are the bright red cherries in sugar we think of today. Those arrived on our shores about 1900—cherries in alcohol to preserve their journey from Europe, and show up in headlines concerned with their healthfulness such as this, from 1907: “Maraschino Cherries Violate Pure Food Law.”
So that takes care of the cherries. I actually wrote an exegesis on grapefruits, which migrated from the Caribbean to Florida about 1830, and boomed along with the intercontinental express and Florida real estate in the early decades of the 20th century.
"The grapefruit to-day the aristocrat of the breakfast table and one of Florida's most valuable products was once not so long ago was believed to be worthless except as medicine," Ida Donnelly Peters wrote in "Grapefruit at other meals" in the February 1914 Delineator, "and was allowed to become overripe on the trees, fall to the ground and there blacken undisturbed,"
She suggests serving grapefruit with oysters, or as part of puddings and gelatins. Maraschino cherries are there too, but merely included among the general fruit salads of nuts and other delicacies designed to go into grapefruit shells. Just eating the grapefruit, unaltered, does not seem to have been an option.
Maraschinos have a typical cameo in Janet M. Hill's article "Seasonable and Tested Recipes" from the July, 1915 issue of American Cookery. Her description of "Half Grapefruit for Luncheon or Dinner" starts out promisingly enough—"Cut grapefruit in halves, crosswise, to make two portions from one fruit"—but then, as far as I can tell, the chef removes the hemisphere of grapefruit pulp and, apparently discards it, filling the skin cup with "half-sections of orange or preserved peaches, plums, pears, cherries, or pineapple; or fill the space with grape juice, confectioner's sugar, bar-le-duc currants or a maraschino cherry." She doesn't explicitly instruct you to discard the grapefruit pulp itself, but it never goes back in the skin either.
So we have maraschino cherries being mixed into grapefruit recipes—there was a lot of broiling of grapefruits going on. How did cherries get placed in the center of grapefruits? I couldn't find textual proof of the practice's origin, so I will have to stray into conjecture: they look good there, a cherry or something: some place halved strawberries in the center of the grapefruit, and those work as well.
I always thought of the cherries as a festive touch, and was pleased to see that attitude supported in a 1937 publication—the oldest reference to the practice I could find after minutes of research—called "Gleanings in Bee Culture" that first drizzles the cut grapefruit with honey, naturally, and the cherry added should the situation call for it.
"If there are to be guests, or the meal is to be a particularly festive occasion, place a well-drained maraschino cherry in the center of each half grapefruit."
Notice that "well-drained." Otherwise, the cherry would leave a mark when removed. That could cause problems. In their reflections on living in New York's famed Carlyle Hotel as girls in the 1950s, daughters of the manager, the real-life models for Kay Thompson's "Eloise," had strong memories of those maraschino cherries delivered by room service to guests, because they would steal them off trays in the hallways.
"We got in so much trouble for that," Marilise Flusser told the New York Post. "[The staff] would say, 'Girls! That means the bellboy has to go all the way downstairs to replace the cherries because now there's a red stain [where the cherry should be] and we can't give that to the clients!'"
Thus the decadence of serving yourself a maraschino cherry on your grapefruit when it is not a festive occasion or you are not a guest in a fancy hotel. My wife never joins me in my maraschino cherry orgy—she's sweet enough without it. But what is life if you can't indulge in a solitary spree? Besides, if I didn't use them to decorate my grapefruit halves, the cherries would be there forever. So I don't feel bad grabbing one to turn a half grapefruit into a 1950s extravaganza of elegance. At only 8 calories, it is luxury I can afford.