When I was a kid, one of my favorite things in the world was a twist on a classic Shirley Temple. My version consisted of a mix of 7up and maraschino cherry juice, with a few maraschino cherries plopped in for good measure. They were like the treasure at the bottom of my cup, buried beneath the ice cubes. I used to order this drink at every restaurant I went to, and at seven years old was not afraid to instruct my waiter on how to make it. The more cherries, the better.
Recently, out of a sudden and nostalgic urge, I bought a jar of maraschino cherries. It’s been years now since I’ve had them, and this is the first time I’ve purchased them as an adult. When I got them home, I noticed that the label proudly stated, “contains real cherries!”
I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it if not for those big bold letters, but it got me wondering… just how are maraschino cherries made? I’ve certainly never seen a cherry tree with neon-colored fruit hanging from its branches, but it had never really occurred to me just how far from nature they might be.
After doing a little research, I began to question the phrase “contains real cherries.” Sure, they start out as real cherries, but by the time all is said and done I’m not really sure they count as a fruit anymore. I mean, they’ve basically had the very soul sucked out of them. They are shadows of their former cherry-selves. All the things that make cherries cherries has been removed, leaving behind an empty shell of red color and sugar, an artificial vestige of what a cherry should be…
Sorry. I’m in a dark mood today. I call this one “Maraschino Massacre.”
This reminds me of a movie I saw a while back, in which a mad-scientist-plastic-surgeon kidnaps someone to be his subject, and performs surgery after surgery on them, altering their appearance more and more until they are completely unrecognizable from who they once were. It was the mad-scientist-plastic-surgeon’s dream to mold this person into his idea of bodily perfection. Eventually the person manages to escape, only to find that nobody knows who they are anymore. Their entire identity was gone.
It was horrific, and I don’t recommend the film, but that’s pretty much what these cherries go through. Let’s take a look, shall we?
The process starts with real, honest-to-goodness cherries. Usually a lighter variety, like Royal Ann, or Rainier. The cherries get pitted, then placed in a “brine” of sulfur dioxide and calcium chloride, meant to preserve the cherries and bleach them of their color. Now you have albino cherries, which probably don’t taste too good.
Next, the cherries get suspended in a pool of corn syrup, food coloring, and bitter almond oil. Or, as I like to call it, food-grade embalming fluid. You know, because cherries aren’t sweet enough, red enough, or medicinally almond-y enough on their own.
The type of food coloring most often used in making maraschino cherries is something called FD&C Red No. 40 (a chemical colorant banned in several other countries as a possible carcinogen). However, they can also contain Red #4 — a dye that was banned for use in food back in the 1960’s, but was re-approved for the purposes of dying maraschino cherries because they are considered “mainly decorative,” and, therefore “not a foodstuff.”
These cherries just keep getting better and better, don’t they?
They weren’t always so synthetic, though. Originally, maraschino cherries were simply whole cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur, a drink made from distilled marasca cherries. These drunken cherries were once reserved only for the wealthy, and considered a special treat. It was only during the American prohibition in the 1920’s that the alcohol was removed, and replaced with today’s chemical-drenched method.
Someone must have thought it was a good idea, because if I remember correctly, prohibition ended a long time ago.
And yet, after all this processing and artificiality, they somehow still maintain that “special treat” feeling. They are the poster child for decadence: pretty as can be, the embodiment of perfection, the proverbial (and literal), “cherry on top.”
What a twisted sense of perfection. I feel like this is a comment on what society regards as “beautiful.”
I know they’re supposed to be cheery and fun, but these little cherries are really bringing me down.
Incredibly, though, “real” maraschino cherries are still available in Europe and, lucky for me, online. I plan to order some, just so I can experience them how they were meant to be.
How do you feel about maraschino cherries? Do you love them, hate them? How do you feel about them now? I’m intensely curious to know.
UPDATE: see my post on how to make your own, from-scratch maraschino cherries, here: Homemade Maraschino Cherries