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13 Sweet Facts About Cherries

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From Roman orchards to modern-day supermarkets, the humble cherry has enjoyed a long and fruitful history. Here are a few facts worth snacking on.

1. WE’VE BEEN EATING THEM SINCE THE STONE AGE.

Archaeologists have discovered fossilized cherry pits in prehistoric caves throughout Europe and Asia. The earliest written mention of cherries comes from the Greek author Theophrastus, who inventoried the fruit in his History of Plants in 300 BCE. Around the same time, Diphilus of Siphnos, a Greek author and physician, wrote of cherries’ usefulness as a diuretic.

2. ROMAN SOLDIERS SPREAD THEM AROUND.

Cherries were part of soldiers’ rations, and as they traveled, the pits they discarded became the trees that proliferated throughout the empire. There was a saying that to find the old Roman roads, all one had to do was follow the wild cherry trees.

3. THE CHERRIES WE KNOW TODAY CAME TO AMERICA IN THE 1600S.

When Europeans arrived with the cherries we know today in the 1600s, several varieties were already present in North America, including black cherries (Prunus serotina) and chokecherries (Prunus virginiana). Chokecherries were widely consumed on the Great Plains, especially as a critical ingredient in pemmican [PDF]. And while black cherries are today most associated with high-end furniture, they were traditionally used to make the American version of cherry bounce [PDF], a widely popular 18th and 19th century cordial that involved mixing crushed black cherries and an alcohol of choice, ranging from rum/brandy in New England to bourbon in Louisiana.

4. THERE ARE MORE THAN 1000 DIFFERENT VARIETIES.

From Lamberts to Lapins to Rainers and Royal Anns, there are more than 500 varieties of sweet cherries, and almost as many tart ones. But only a small percentage—around 20 or so altogether—are used in commercial production.

5. TWO STATES DO MOST OF THE GROWING.

Washington grows an estimated 62 percent of the nation’s sweet cherries [PDF], the popular species that’s commonly eaten raw during the summertime. Along with Oregon and California, just these three states produce 94 percent of America’s sweet cherries. Michigan, meanwhile, grows well over half of the country’s tart cherries, which are mostly used for cooking.

6. THAT STORY ABOUT GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE CHERRY TREE? NOT TRUE.

Countless Americans know the story: A young George Washington, gifted a hatchet by his father, chopped down a cherry tree. When confronted about the misdeed, he confessed, “I cannot tell a lie!” What many don’t realize is that this tale of honesty is, in fact, a lie. Washington’s first biographer, Mason Locke Weems, came up with the story for the fifth edition of The Life of Washington, which was enthusiastically received by a public desperate for details of the great general and president following his death in 1799.

But oddly, Weems never claimed that the tree was cut down. He specifically said that the tree was “barked”—in other words, that Washington removed the tree’s bark with his hatchet. ("One day, in the garden where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it," Weems wrote.) Only later did this story transform into Washington chopping the tree down.

7. ZACHARY TAYLOR HAD A VERY REAL ENCOUNTER WITH CHERRIES.

In 1850, on a hot Fourth of July in Washington, Tyler paused after a long walk to enjoy a glass of milk and a bowl of cherries. Later that day, he developed severe stomach pains. His symptoms quickly deteriorated, and four days later, he was dead. Experts can only speculate as to the cause of Taylor’s demise, but many believe a microbe like Salmonella found in the cherries or in the milk he drank (encouraged, no doubt, by the poor sanitation in Washington at that time) was the culprit.

8. CHERRY HARVESTING IS AN INGENIOUS PROCESS.

A typical cherry tree produces 7000 cherries. So what’s the fastest, most efficient way to harvest them? Many growers use a mechanical shaker, which grips the tree and rattles it hard enough to loosen the fruit, which falls onto a giant tarp that then feeds onto a conveyor belt. Check out this video to see the harvesting in action.

9. TURKEY IS THE WORLD’S LEADING PRODUCER.

For a few years in the late ‘80s, the U.S. led the world in cherry production. But in 1990, Turkey claimed the title, and today it produces 535,000 tons annually to the U.S.’s 345,000. It’s appropriate, really, given the country’s fertile climate and the fact that cherries originated from Asia Minor, which includes modern-day Turkey.

10. THE WORD MAY HAVE GREEK ORIGINS.

The word cherry has been attributed to the Greek town of Cerasus, which today is the city of Giresun, located in Turkey. It’s the place where cherries were first exported to Europe. But some historians think that the town itself was named after cherries, and prefer an Akkadian origin for the name.

11. BING CHERRIES ARE NOT NAMED FOR BING CROSBY.

They’re named for an orchard foreman named Ah Bing, who together with cherry farmer Seth Lewelling developed the dark red varietal in the late 19th century near Milwaukee, Oregon. The story goes that Lewelling named the cherries in Bing’s honor after the foreman returned to China and was forbidden from returning under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

12. THE MARASCHINO CHERRY HAS A COMPLICATED HISTORY.

The original Maraschino cherry was a Marasca cherry that was placed in an ocean water brine and then a liqueur made from the fruit’s juices, with ground up leaves and cherry pits added in for good measure. Developed in the 19th century, the Maraschino quickly became a hit in Europe. But Marasca cherries, which are native to Croatia, weren’t plentiful enough to keep up with demand, so producers began cutting corners. By the time Maraschinos made their way to America, most manufacturers were using flavor extracts and cheap cherries, and some were even soaking the cherries in harmful chemicals. In 1912, the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement outlining real versus “imitation” Maraschino cherries. Ten years later, an Oregon horticulturalist developed a brining technique that used calcium salts, sugar, and food coloring. It’s a technique that’s still used today—and one that just might make you reconsider putting that cherry on top.

13. THE WORLD RECORD FOR CHERRY-PIT SPITTING IS 93 FEET.

Brian Krause, part of the Krause family cherry-pit spitting dynasty, set the record at an annual contest in Eau Claire, Michigan in 2004. That same day, Krause spat a pit more than 100 feet in the freestyle competition, which allows for a running start.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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