Sunday, June 2, 2013

June Cherries

June always takes me by surprise. In the winter months I reach a point when I start wishing for hot summer and the bounty of my gardens. I long to go in search of roses, tomatoes, squash, and strawberries with my clippers and my basket. And summer seems so far away. Then suddenly it’s June and summer is on my doorstep.

Even though the Butler Cherry Ranch closed in 1998, when June arrives, I still catch myself thinking that I need to call Butler’s. Back in the day, I called Butler’s on the first of June to find out when they thought the cherries would be in. It varied from year to year, but was always sometime in June and lasted a couple of weeks. I would keep checking back, and when they announced the first day of cherry-picking, I put it on the calendar. I usually took the day off work and kept the children home from school for the first day of the season. For one day we dropped into a time-warp throw-back to agrarian culture when the children got pulled from school to harvest the crops.

Life didn’t get any better than the first morning of the first day of cherry picking at Butler’s. Throngs of people would turn out. Children running through the orchards and climbing the trees, shouting with glee. Everyone eagerly talking about what they would do with their cherries this year. Pointing to the Royal Anne’s – best jam ever. Because we lived just down the road from Butler’s, I often took my children back later in the week to pick again when it wasn’t so crowded. The sense of community on the first day was wonderful and so was the serenity and beauty of picking when no one else was around.

One time, when we stood at the top of a hillside of cherry trees glistening in the early morning light, my children with their baskets on their arms, poised to pick, little Sudi, probably four at the time, piped up, “It’s so perfect here. I can see all the way to Tahoe.” We had recently taken a family vacation in Tahoe, which, to him, was the quintessence of paradise.

Another year, Akili plunged into the cherry orchards (and there were acres and acres and acres of them) head first in what could only be described really as an orgy of cherry picking. By the time we had picked our share and headed for the weigh-in, Akili was covered from head to toe in cherry juice. It was running down his legs, his arms, and his chin.

I have a photograph somewhere of my young daughter, braids flying, basket filled to the brim, tearing down a lane between laden trees at top speed. Dappled in sunlight. The very image of a magical country childhood.

Not my pie, but I have often baked ones
that looked just like it
George Butler charged a dollar per pound for the cherries and promised not to weigh anyone before they left. Good deal because we ate our share. I had such a weakness for Butler cherries that I always came home with way too many. We ate them fresh for a week or more and I baked several pies. But the bulk of them got put up in canning jars and frozen in freezer bags after being pitted. I wore surgical gloves to pit the cherries because otherwise the cherry juice dyed my fingers black. It often took me as much as a week to get them all pitted and put up. I made pies from them throughout the year, rationing them in the end to take me to the next picking season in June before they ran out. My recipe was simple. I added honey, lemon juice, and a little cornstarch to the cherries and used my grandmother’s simple pie crust recipe. Nothing beats a homemade cherry pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

On special occasions, usually when we had enough visitors at the Ranch to lend a hand, we cranked fresh ice cream in the ice cream maker. We had a rule that you had to crank if you wanted to eat. Many hands made short work of the chore. And I do believe that the energy of those who cranked went into that ice cream and made it super delicious.

Now that I think on it, I am inclined to say that homemade cherry pie with hand-cranked vanilla ice cream is the taste of the good life. And that’s the flavor of June that I find in my mouth as I write these words. Is anyone else hungry?

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