The Sweet (and Sour) Season

As spring opens into summer, Howie Kahn meditates on the power and beauty of the cherry.

My wife, to whom I’ve been married for six years, recently told me she chose May for our wedding because of the cherry blossoms: their life-giving shock of pink after a long New York winter, their fullness in bloom, their promise of lushness. If botanical transference were a thing, then some of those qualities would ultimately bless our union. I’ve been thinking about the cherry blossoms that flanked our wedding canopy, especially now, as they signify a seasonal improvement during a period in history where improvement is critical. With the cherry blossoms come warmth and longer days and anti-depressant blue in the skies.

And they come with their fruit, which, to me, is transporting.

Here’s an adulterous admission: living in New York City through COVID-19 has largely meant thinking about someplace else. New Yorkerness is supposed to be monogamous and here I am, cheating. How could I? As the grocery store workers in Yankees caps and Ewing jerseys stand like sentinels, bagging allotments of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. As restaurants have hustled to morph into food banks, and frontline workers have done their damnedest to protect the rest of us and have been rewarded, and sustained, with the New York City miracle of a steady, donated stream of world class pizza. How could I with the nightly 7pm cacophony of solidarity and gratitude?

But my longing for is Michigan, where I was born and raised. My wife, a New Yorker, seems to understand. Michigan is the place with which I still identify most. In New York the energy gets into your pores and helps define you. In Michigan, your skin is more simply your skin. I struggled with that quiet growing up and fought to get away from it. Youth is maximal. Mine demanded: More!

Now, it’s the quiet I dearly miss. I can hear New York telling me, with its steadiness, its staunch togetherness, man,just go.

Then I remember the cherries and feel but nothing but peace.

To think about Michigan this time of year is tied inextricably to this:

The first bag of the season being brought home by my mother.

The whisper produced by hands grabbing fruit from its gossamer sack.

The mouthfeel marking the start of summer: breaking the skin for the flavor to burst.

Then, the satisfaction of stripping fruit from stone with teeth, with bite. And rolling each pit around on the tongue.

We’d puckishly spit them it as far as they could go.

We ate these cherries outdoors, spending summers in Traverse City, Michigan, a place that takes great pride in its National Cherry Festival, in its bountiful crop, in the state growing more Montgomery tarts than anyone else: 201 million pounds in 2018, the last great growing year. Sadly, COVID-19 has suspended this year’s celebration; it’s slated to resume in July 2021.

But the fruit still must be celebrated. Miraculously, it always registered to me as two distinctly different fruits: the afternoon cherries that had been outside with us, warmed and jammy from the sun, and the morning cherries, crisp and cool from their refrigerated slumber. Cherry pie marked another category all together. Pies came from various farm stands around Grand Traverse, Antrim and Leelanau Counties, where the hilly orchards wrap around Lake Michigan. Sampling pies collected from epic drives was my first critical exercise in the comparative study of food. Some fillings were overly sweet, others more acidic and others supremely balanced. Those are words I have now. Back then, I could only distinguish them as good or different good, sweet good or sour good. Mortar-thick cherry milkshakes from Traverse City’s celebrated burger joint, Don’s Drive-In, with its beacon-like bubble-gum pink façade, introduced a level of ecstasy that I would later be able to describe as narcotic. The pursuit of cherries, in all their different forms, raw and processed, provided drama, adventure and reverence across an entire season. They were to be perpetually chased, adored and savored. Cherries are sexually symbolic, of course, but in Michigan they’re also an introduction to the workings of love.

In a few weeks, the first good cherries of the season will be ready for market. Summer and its optimism will have arrived. I’ll be thinking of Michigan, living in New York. Masked, gloved, my wife and I will buy a bag. Our son’s hands will make the whispering sounds as he digs for fruit. We’ll all make the pits fly. We’ll remember the blossoms at our wedding.

I haven’t yet mentioned that I’m allergic to cherries. Nothing fatal: eye watering, throat scratching, some pleasure in the pain. My lips will inevitably tingle and go numb: a controlled moment of stillness in New York City before all the feeling rushes back.

Howie Kahn contributes to Details, GQ, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Grantland. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, Departures, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Triple Canopy, SWALLOW and other publications. He is a James Beard Award winner, a Hopwood Award winner, and a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Sarah Lawrence College MFA program.

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