I've never been to a festival wholly devoted to celebrating a fruit, but there's a first time for everything. John and I rolled into Traverse City, Michigan, home of the National Cherry Festival, mid-afternoon on July 3. Starving, over-caffeinated and dragging from the drive, we hurriedly checked into the Park Place Hotel
, the city's oldest. I prefer bunking at bed & breakfasts, but rooms weren't aplenty and we needed a dog-friendly spot.
I was there on serious business: to pick, bake and overwhelm myself with cherries, all in the name of country living. Michigan was the right spot to go cherry crazy in: The state is the nation's largest producer of cherries, having yielded 190 million pounds of tart cherries last year.
Traverse City felt much more urban than I expected. The bustling downtown is dotted with trendy cafes, pubs, quaint ice cream parlors, independent bookstores and boutiques. To our delight, other than Talbots and Oberweis, we didn't spot any chain restaurants or stores. While waiting on sandwiches from the local Mackinaw Brewing Company, I flipped through a festival guide.
I was rather deflated to read that the "world's largest" pancake breakfast we were to attend was set on breaking the record for the number of pancakes served, not the enormous physical size of a single pancake. Well, that's just boring.
Cranky, famished, caffeine-dizzy. Now pouting. Lovely.
Veggie burger stabilized, I was greeted by a town abloom in, drumroll please, cherries. Cherries on clothing. Books about cherries. Food made with cherries. I couldn't help but be cheered. We capped the evening with homemade ice cream from Kilwin's and retired at 10:30 p.m.
The Fourth of July quickly dawned: Time to make the pancakes. I was outfitted with an apron and a red, white and blue baseball cap. While happy to don the volunteer uniform, my pigtails were flattened like pancakes.
Tasked as a floater, I spotted some guys mixing pancake batter with an industrial-looking tool in large paint buckets. Not likely to see that twice in a lifetime, I snapped on latex gloves, introduced myself and took charge of mixing up a bucket of floury powder which magically became batter.
Voila. My work was done. John contributed, too. He ate up some pancakes and we were off to see the cherry orchards on Old Mission Peninsula. Arriving at Edmondson Orchard, we were greeted by Jo Westphal, a landscape architecture professor at Michigan State University and the partner of fifth-generation cherry farmer Dave Edmondson.
With buckets in hand, we disappeared into the thicket of cherry trees. We quickly fell into a productive groove trying to outdo the other in finding the prettiest, juiciest cherries.
After about 90 minutes the novelty of cherry picking wore thin. Sure, we were surrounded by blue skies and bluer water, but how many more cherries did we need? It was getting warmer, so I lazily took refuge under some branches. After another 20 minutes, John announced, "I think that should do it." You think?
We picked 22 pounds of cherries at $1.50 per pound, compared to Whole Foods' $4.99 per pound. Enough said.
Back home I washed and de-stemmed and removed pits from seven cups of cherries using my newest kitchen gadget: a cherry pitter from Williams Sonoma. Following a Marthastewart.com recipe I made my second-ever pie from scratch. Yes, that includes the dough or pate brisee, in Martha speak. I don't have a food processor so this dough was made Little House on the Prairie style...with my hands.
Here's a tip: Read recipes completely before beginning to measure, pour and mix. I mistakenly mixed the butter with the other ingredients when it should have been cut into pieces and placed on top of the cherry mixture before setting the top crust in place. Oops.
But I did catch the fact that since I didn't have sour or tart cherries (they weren't ripe yet), I should reduce the amount of sugar and add extra fresh lemon juice to balance the flavors. I sound so expert-baker. Little hand claps for me.
With the aesthetic details, I needed help. John, re-enter stage left. I wanted the pie to look like Martha's, with the dough basket-weaved atop the filling. John managed this with exact, albeit painstakingly slow precision.
After about 50 minutes, I gleefully greeted my just-baked pie. I cut the first piece but it resisted readily being platted. I must have pressed the dough too firmly into the dish. Dispensing with the pie server, I grabbed a spoon and scooped out servings of mish-mashed cherries and crust.
Topped off with vanilla bean ice cream we were ready to taste-test. Truth, neither of us can ever remember craving cherry pie—we're a chocolate family—but it was flavorful, pleasingly textured and the sweet-tart flavors were well balanced.
Baking is rewarding. Moreover, this was an incredibly fulfilling summer food voyage. I hope to one day bake pies with cherries planted and nurtured by us. Whole Foods? I think not.
If you're looking to enjoy the bounty of summer cherries but prefer something lighter, visit Stone Lotus. Chef/mixologist Dale Levitski serves cherry spirits like "Black Forest Cake" (Effen Black Cherry, Godiva Light & Dark, homemade cherry syrup, rimmed with tart cherry powder and garnished with freeze dried tart cherries) and a Whiskey/Bourbon bottle treatment served with a garnish of cinnamon- and coriander-marinated cherry garnish. Now that will make you say "hi ho cherry o"!