The cherry on top

Like love and alcohol, the maraschino cherry possesses the rare power to make a kid feel like an adult, and an adult feel like a kid. A sweet history.

Published October 24, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

In the Cold War 1970s, with a domino teetering in Southeast Asia, my family stood on guard against another red scare. Most vigilant among us was my father, a physician. Leftward-leaning in his politics but hawkishly conservative on dietary matters, he returned home one day with fresh reconnaissance from the scientific front. The Food and Drug Administration was weighing a ban on red dye 2, a common colorant in candy and cosmetics; studies had linked it to cancer in rats.

In a climate of fear, new house rules were passed. Crimson confections from chewing gum to licorice, never encouraged in our home, were reclassified as strictly forbidden, along with a host of other red-hued sweets. Like most subjects of iron-fisted regimes, my brother and I worked around the crackdown. Red licorice, for instance, could be swapped out for black. And if red M&Ms were now off-limits, well, we still had yellow, green and brown.

Where we found ourselves stymied was in the stubborn case of our favorite scarlet treat -- the crowning garnish on our ice cream sundaes, the neon buoy in our ginger ale. There was no substitute for the maraschino cherry. Dejected and deprived, we wound up suffering through special occasions. At birthday parties, or on ice cream outings after Little League games, while other kids scarfed their maraschinos, we dutifully pulled them from our Shirley Temples and plucked them from the top of our banana splits, carefully avoiding the rouge-streaked whipped cream they left behind.

Thirty years went by -- close to half a lifetime without a maraschino slipping through my parted lips -- and late last spring, I found myself sitting in a San Francisco lounge, watching the bartender mix a Manhattan, a cocktail I'd ordered on a whim. When the drink arrived, I gazed at the cherry, bobbing brightly in its alcohol bath -- the torturer and temptress of my childhood, the forbidden fruit that had beckoned me in the serpent-whisper of eternal sin. I'm not sure what inspired me (a long belated act of Oedipal rebellion?) but without thinking, I snapped it up and popped it in my mouth.

The disappointment I experienced wasn't anticlimactic. This was something closer to disgust. Exploding on my tongue was a noxious starburst of insufferable sweetness, a mutant cross of fruit and candy, with the muscular texture of a pumped-up cherry but coated in a sugary chemical concoction that had pleased my youthful palate but now clung to it with the cloying grip of super-strength cough syrup. Radioactive Robitussin. I spat out the maraschino, sickened, stunned.

In a weaker moment, such a sudden shattering of a childhood idol might have sent me scrambling to the nearest couch. Instead, I bolted back my cocktail, ordered another, and spent the evening in a whiskey-and-vermouth stupor, a jilted suitor slumped on a barstool, reassessing my obsession with a longtime love.

Today, to my surprise, after months of reflection -- and inspection -- I'm pleased to report that my fondness for the maraschino cherry lives on. Stripped of its gustatory appeal, the maraschino cherry now stands before me as a symbol of Western progress. In it, I see a shimmering ornament of Americana. In its history, I can trace the dusty path of our nation's past, from Ellis Island to a modern day ruled by media and mass production.

Far from a staple in home kitchens, its nutritional value next to negligible, the maraschino thrives, a triumph of style over substance, a marvel of culinary evolution. An edible Zelig, it is remarkably adaptable, as comfortable in the trailer park as it is in top-shelf restaurants, as suited for kindergartners as it is for cocktail party poseurs. Like love and alcohol, it possesses the rare power to make a kid feel like an adult, and an adult feel like a kid.

Over the past century, the red-dyed cherry has seeped into our lives, reinventing itself even as we reinvent ourselves. It has grown entwined with politics and popular culture; sustained the careers of successful scientists; served as a sidekick to Hollywood stars. In the hallowed halls of academia, the maraschino has launched a thousand theses (or at least a thousand pages of highbrow prose). It has even spawned a college course called Maraschino 101. The United States today produces more maraschinos than any country (though the industry is cagey about the exact number), and Americans lead the world in their consumption of them. "Le maraschino, c'est nous!"

Like many things we think of as American, the story of the maraschino begins as an immigrant's tale. Its origins reach back centuries to the town of Zadar (formerly known as Zara) in Dalmatia, along what today is the Croatian coast. There, the sour black marasca cherry gave rise, through a mash of its pits, leaves and fruit, to a liqueur called maraschino, which in turn was used to preserve cherries. The motives were both practical and aesthetic. In an age before refrigeration, how nice to keep your fruit in suspended animation!

What's more, by most accounts, the maraschino harbored a compelling flavor with the sweet-plucky punch of today's brandied cherries. You would be hard-pressed to find a 17th century Dalmatian who would have taken issue with a snack that imparted a buzz.

How and when the maraschino slipped onto our shores isn't known exactly. But by the 1860s, Charles Ranhofer, a convention-busting chef at Delmonico's restaurant in New York, was serving maraschino ice cream. And by the early 1900s, Manhattan's leisure class had brought the maraschino to their party, like Gatsby summoning Nick Carraway. The difference was that city socialites seemed to like the maraschino cherry simply for what is was. A 1906 lifestyle piece in the New York Times told of a young woman in a trendy hotel who ordered multiple Manhattans but downed only the maraschino, leaving the alcohol behind.

Alcohol, of course, was an issue in its own right, and before too long, the maraschino found itself an indirect target of the temperance movement. In 1908, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union launched a crusade against all sweets made with alcohol. Four years later, the federal government refined the attack, banning traditionally made maraschinos from soda fountains, where sundaes were popular but incomplete without a cherry on top. These "golden globules of delight," the New York Times reported poetically at the time, could still appear in cocktails but not on marble counters lined with ice-cream loving kids.

As it turned out, the campaign against the maraschino had all the efficacy of the war on drugs, and it touched, too, on the nation's puritanical hypocrisy. In 1919, when the Volstead Act was passed, ushering in the era of Prohibition, liqueur-soaked cherries were driven underground. Like Br'er Rabbit banished to the briar patch, nowhere was the maraschino more at home.

One speak-easy custom was to provide guests with a "setup tray" containing glasses, ice, juices and garnishes, among them the maraschino cherry. This was the Jazz Age. The cocktail was king, and the maraschino rode its coattails. Unwelcome in ice cream parlors, the maraschino found a place in the Zombie, the Hemingway Daiquiri and the Angel's Tit, to name just a few.

Though it emerged from Prohibition as a cultural icon, by then the "maraschino cherry" was no longer the maraschino cherry, at least not one that a denizen of Dalmatia would have recognized. The exotic import had been assimilated, dragged into the maw of American mass production. The maraschino wasn't alone in being devoured by the production plant. The early 1900s had born witness to the rise of processed foods -- to Jell-O, for instance (invented in 1897), and later fruit cocktail, both popular vessels for the maraschino.

As the country marched away from its rural roots, the maraschino rolled along with it. More and more Americans were moving to big cities, eating quick and easy meals. Liqueur-preserved fruit, though well-suited to the tastes and pastimes of Victorian-era Martha Stewarts in country cottages, fell out of step with the rhythms of urbanization. People wanted cheap food, fast.

In the hands of industry, the maraschino morphed from a homemade specialty into the artificial output of assembly lines. Then, as now, the modern recipe called for soaking fresh cherries in a briny bath. Drained of color, the cherries were then dyed, impregnated with sugar, and packed, most often in almond-flavored syrup. They weren't so much cherries as a chemically enhanced confections. Long before the birth of stultifying suburbs, America had sired a Stepford fruit.

Important actors played a role in the maraschino's shift. The most prominent was Ernest Wiegand, a food scientist at Oregon State University, who, in the 1920s, launched what you might call his own Manhattan Project with experiments on behalf of the maraschino. Until Wiegand came along, the Royal Ann cherry (the preferred variety of growers in the Northwest, where much of the maraschino industry is rooted) was stricken with an Achilles' heel. Large and fleshy, it was difficult to pit. Wiegand's contribution was to add calcium to the brine in which cherries soak on their way to becoming maraschinos. Simple but ingenious. The method, which is still in use today, made the Royal Ann more resilient and pitter-ready, on a cheaper, prettier path to the marketplace. It also made Wiegand something of a hero among maraschino-makers, a man still spoken of in reverent tones.

Wiegand left behind a legacy and a building, Wiegand Hall, home of the food sciences department at Oregon State University, where, decades later, Professor Ron Wrolstad would introduce a class called Maraschino 101, an academic exploration of the cherry that is still offered at the school today. "I got the idea," says the now-retired Wrolstad, "from a class they were teaching on ice cream at Penn State."

Wrolstad, as it happens, also spent time working as the maraschino's agent, summoned by the industry to search for natural alternatives to artificial dyes. (A dye derived from radishes and black carrots proved to be the ticket, though maraschinos colored with that combination make up just a smidgen of national sales.) Those dyes had been an issue since 1960, when Congress amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, tacking on the so-called Delaney clause, which prohibited the marketing of any color additive found to cause cancer.

No early-day Jack Abramoff, the cherry industry still lobbied successfully to continue using such dyes until health questions surrounding them could be answered, or until suitable substitutes could be found. But butting in on Congress had a cost. While hardly a scandal on the scale of "Silent Spring," sticking with the dyes stained the maraschino with an image problem. My family's paranoia wasn't the only proof.

Even today, if you want to rankle a maraschino-maker, ask him a question about cancer and colorants. It remains a testy matter. What Carl Payne, a food scientist with the Oregon Cherry Growers Association, will tell you is the industry now relies on red 40, a dye that so far boasts a clean bill of health.

You will also irritate an industry insider by repeating any number of urban myths. I still remember some from my young days in the schoolyard outside Boston, where, as we did with Sasquatch and Carl Yastrzemski, my friends and I trafficked in embellished tales. One story held that maraschinos were made with formaldehyde. (In fact, they're made with benzaldehyde, a flavoring extracted from almond pits and also used in Dr. Pepper.) Another asserted that a single maraschino took seven years to digest. Unlike oil companies or the Bush administration, the maraschino industry has little power to combat bad press. Operating with an annual marketing budget of roughly $300,000, maraschino makers don't buy TV or radio ads. "Instead, we get creative," says Cheryl Kroupa, a Michigan cherry grower and maraschino marketer, whose job involves insinuating preserved cherries into articles and recipes in glossy magazines.

As long as alcohol and ice cream exist, you'd think the maraschino would be an easy sell. But just in case, Kroupa also contracts with UPP Entertainment Marketing, a leading product placement agency, in Los Angeles. "A Price Is Right" appearance, which UPP helped land for the maraschino, clearly stuck with Kroupa. Whether it stuck with American consumers is more difficult to gauge. And that's not to mention Hollywood films. If you noticed Pierce Brosnan in "Laws of Attraction" brandishing a maraschino between his thumb and finger, or a shirtless Chris Evans in "It's Not a Teen Movie," coated in whipped cream and sporting maraschino nipples, then you've been moved by the cherry's subliminal power -- and Hollywood's savvy marketing.

Of course, most media images depict the maraschino as sexy and long-stemmed, like a starlet. But there is a less glamorous, working-man's maraschino: the stemless cherry found in baked goods and pre-packed ice creams like Cherry Garcia. Like America itself, the maraschino market is not class-blind. Then, of course, there is the custom market. Orange, yellow and pink maraschinos have all been produced for niche consumers. And a few years back, the Omni Hotel Group commissioned a cherry of red, white and blue.

When I heard about this patriotic maraschino, I called my father, the left-wing health nut, and asked him if he'd reconsider his position. Could he find it in his heart to accept the maraschino as something close to wholesome, as something innocent and American in the eat-your-apple-pie and respect-your-mother sense? After a moment's silence, he announced that he couldn't, that a flag-waving fruit with artificial colorants was, to his mind, like a "Support the Troops" sticker on an SUV: troubling if you thought about it too much.

Like a lot of old Cold Warriors, he still sees a red menace. But I'm a grown man now, comfortable to claim my own worldview. A few Saturdays ago, I brought my daughter to our local ice cream parlor for a two-person assault on a banana split. We sat across from each other in a vinyl booth, faced with three scoops of vanilla, an avalanche of hot fudge and a mound of whipped cream with a you-know-what on top. The neon maraschino winked up at me, glowing like the lights of the Vegas strip. A red-blooded American, an immigrant adapted, artificial dye tainting its natural roots, its flavor as real as reality TV.

I watched my daughter, a girl just beyond toddlerhood, spoon poised patiently above her sundae, eyeing the cherry with interest and intent. I thought of the hazards that loomed on her horizon -- global warming, nuclear apocalypse, teenage boys. I smiled and nodded. A single maraschino didn't seem so scary after all.

By Josh Sens

Josh Sens is a freelance writer based in Oakland, and the restaurant critic for San Francisco magazine.


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