Cherries help in dealing with February gloom

The Baltimore Sun

February is a slog. The lack of sunlight. The bitter weather. The gloom. Bummer.

During this dreary month, I seek solace in the kitchen. Psychiatrists probably frown on the practice of turning to food to comfort the psyche, but it works for me.

Recently, I embraced cherries.

I had thought of cherries as a summer fruit. Indeed, one of the highlights of my vacation last summer was eating cherries in Oregon, then propelling the pits by pinching them between my thumb and forefinger. This pit-pitching was labeled "thumbpitting" by Gary Hibler, the Portland cherry eater who introduced me to this endeavor.

That occurred during the bright days of July, when the sun was high and the fruit was ripe. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the month designated as National Cherry Month was dreary, gray February.

Why February? A spokeswoman for the National Cherry Marketing Institute, based in Lansing, Mich., said it all has to do with George Washington, whose birthday is in February.

We have all heard the tale of how a young George confessed to cutting down a cherry tree rather than tell his father a lie.

The cherry-tree incident is a compelling story. But the trouble is, it's not true. When I called the experts at Mount Vernon, Washington's Virginia home, they told me the cherry-tree tale was invented by Parson Mason Weems, who wrote a biography of Washington. Weems, it seems, invented several anecdotes about Washington's early life to illustrate the origins of the heroic qualities Washington exhibited as an adult.

While the father of our country and February birthday boy might not have chopped down a cherry tree, Washington did grow and eat the fruit, according to Mary Thompson, Mount Vernon's research specialist.

Diaries and cookbooks of the Washington family contain many references to cherries. "The cookbook Martha Washington inherited from the family of her first husband contains recipes for making wine and a type of candy from cherries, as well as several methods of preserving them, and a way to use black cherries to 'strengthen the stomacke,' " Thompson wrote in a paper on Mount Vernon food.

Moreover, the Washington household also made a beverage called "cherry bounce," a mixture of cherry juice, spices and brandy that, judging by letters unearthed by Thompson, delighted many guests. "George Washington, too, seems to have enjoyed this beverage, which he packed, along with port and madeira wines, for a trip over the Allegheny Mountains in the fall of 1784," Thompson wrote.

The cherry institute's Web site did not, alas, have a recipe for Washington's cherry bounce, which could, I bet, brighten up a glum winter day.

It did have a recipe for a cherry sauce to put on pork, which I tried. It also had a bushel basket of information about the possible health benefits of eating cherries.

One of the possible health benefits that caught my eye was that cherries have melatonin, an antioxidant that might help me sleep.

The other night, I made a cherry sauce for pork chops. The recipe called for medallions of pork tenderloin, but I used skinny pork chops instead. The sauce had shallots, chicken broth, balsamic vinegar and dried cherries.

It was pretty good, a tangy topping for the cooked pork. I suspect that a number of berries, including cranberries, would have worked in this sauce.

But I am not sure the other berries would have made me sleepy. After that dinner of pork chops and cherry sauce, I had a restful night. I nodded off and didn't wake up until late the next morning.

That, it seems to me, is the best reason to eat cherries in February. They can help you get through this cheerless month the best way possible, by sleeping through it.

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