Cherries: A Utah Wimbledon Tradition

In Utah, cherries are great for watching July’s parades, fireworks  — at at our house, Wimbledon on TV.

The Brits may serve  strawberries and cream at the Wimbledon tennis championships, but at our house, cherries are our Wimbledon-watching tradition. Since the Utah season hits about the same time as both Wimbledon and Independence Day, sweet, juicy cherries are usually part of our parade- and fireworks-watching, too.

Of course, we are watching Wimbledon on TV, not in person. I don’t remember much about what Kim & I ate when we went to the actual Wimbledon championships, as that was in 1986!  I just remember that after dropping a lot of money at the concession stands the first day, my frugal personality kicked in and we switched tactics. Since our London hotel was near the Marks & Spencer department store, we would stop there and buy sandwiches and picnic items before heading out on The Tube to the All-England Club. Were there cherries or strawberries in our picnic? Possibly — but I can’t remember.

Cherries are Utah’s official state fruit, as Utah is second in the nation to Michigan for tart cherry production, and the fifth largest state for sweet cherries.

My first summer job was picking cherries in Utah County, at age 14.  We lived in Rush Valley (in Tooele County) and my mom took summer classes at BYU to update her teaching credentials. My siblings, friends and I would leave with her at dawn, taking the “back” way through Cedar Fort, dropping us off at an orchard somewhere around Lehi. After she finished her classes, another woman in town was also attending BYU, and we would ride with her (thanks, Ouida Blanthorn!). With an early start, we got lot of picking in before the afternoon heat hit. Since we got paid by the pound, we learned to pick fast. We had fun joking around with boys who were also working in the orchards, although we probably didn’t make a great impression with leaves and twigs in our hair and cherry juice-stained hands.

I’m guessing those Lehi orchards of my cherry-picking youth were turned into  housing subdivisions, along with much of Utah’s other farmland. But there are still reminders of Utah’s former cherry glory. North Ogden still celebrates Cherry Days; and the Cherry Hill campground and the Cherry Pit fruit stand on Highway 89, are reminders of how the city of Fruit Heights got its name. And many homeowners have a cherry tree in their backyard.

Yesterday when I stopped at the Cherry Pit, I was told they were out of cherries already, having lost about 75 percent of their usual crop this season. But the Facebook page for Box Elder County’s Fruitway says local cherries are still being sold at stands along the 10-mile stretch of U.S. 89, from Perry to Brigham City.

Rowley’s in Payson (the folks with the Big Red Barn) is advertising cherries on its Facebook page for $1.99 per pound. So go get ’em while they last.

At one time, most of the 30-40 million pounds of Utah’s tart cherries were processed into pie filling and cherry juice concentrate. But according to a story by Salt Lake Tribune food writer Kathy Stephenson,  much of today’s tart cherry crop is dried and used in granola, trail mixes, and chocolate or yogurt-covered cherries.

Payson Fruit Growers Cooperative has a plant near In-15 where the cherries are dried and sent out to customers such as Costco, Sam’s Club and the Mariani brand. In Utah, you can buy the dried tart cherries directly at Rowley’s Red Barn or online at paysonfruitgrowers.com.

Orchard-owners in the Box Elder area told me they quit hiring teens a long time ago because they didn’t work consistently.

But last week my 8-year-old neighbor gave me some  cherries she picked from her grandma’s backyard tree, so there are kids out there who still know how to pick ’em. Thanks, Annelise!

So with Wimbledon is in full swing, you’ll find me watching with my bowl of cherries.

 

 

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