At the 45th Parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, Michigan has a sweet spot that is kissed by the waves of the largest lake totally within U.S. borders. It’s a tart spot, too. This spot, in Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula, is the world’s Cherry Capital.
The micro climate here, with autumns warmed by Lake Michigan breezes, produces three-quarters of the nation’s Montmorency tart cherries and about a fifth of our sweet cherries. The little red gems are the stars of the National Cherry Festival. The celebration began modestly around 1910 as the growers’ “blessing of the blossoms.” These days, it takes over the streets of Traverse City for more than a week (this year on June 30-July 7).
There will be concerts on the Cherry Blast Stage, an air show by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, cherry concessions, pie eating contests, the annual Cherry Royale Parade, and of course, actual royalty with the crowning of the National Cherry Queen.
But cherries are not just another pretty fruit— research shows they are healthy. Cherries deliver beta carotene, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, iron and fiber. The anthocyanins in those tart Montmorency cherries help athletes recover from intense workouts. Cherry juice is recommended as a tonic for improving sleep, decreasing blood pressure, reducing arthritis and gout and clearing up acne. Cherry facial, anyone?
Of course, it’s OK to eat Michigan cherries just because they taste good. That is the philosophy at the Cherry Republic, nestled in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. In 1989 Bob Sutherland started selling T-shirts bearing the Republic motto “Life, Liberty, Beaches, Pie”; now the Republic has six locations and puts cherries in its salsas, jam, pepper jelly, summer sausage, barbecue sauce, syrup, beverages, mustard and horseradish sauce.
Other food producers put cherries into pies, pastries, pancakes, ice cream, soup, wine, marinades, omelets, the ubiquitous Michigan Cherry Salad and some surprising concoctions.
Ray Pleva, who grew up on a cherry orchard in Cedar, near Traverse City, added cherries to ground beef, creating a leaner, juicier burger. His Plevalean found its way into school lunches and made him grand marshal of the Cherry Royale Parade.
If you like a drink with your burger, pair that Plevalean with a shot of vodka from the recipe that “Oma” (Grandma) Hedy Stienbart of Lansing brought with her from Germany in 1952. At 80 proof, everyone who tries her cherry-infused vodka declares, “Oma!”
Cherries are not, as they say, easy as pie. One cold snap can devastate the delicate fruit’s entire Michigan growing area. Federal rules can require large harvests to rot on the ground. Then, there is the matter of marketing. One Michigan grower went to lengths to bring cherries down the lakeshore to Chicago.
Terry Stanton grew up helping with Leelanau cherry harvests. Stanton was born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, and his great-grandparents had homesteaded in Leelanau County, the Little Finger on Michigan’s Mitten. He split his time between Leelanau and Chicago, where he became part-owner of Darby Graphics. In 1979, Stanton inherited the farm from his dad, but continued working in Chicago and looking for a way to market cherries here.
In August of 1983, Stanton held a “Thank you, Chicago” event on Michigan Avenue. He used Darby Graphics delivery trucks to bring freshly harvested sweet cherries from Leelanau County to the sidewalk in front of the Wrigley Building, where his team handed small bags of the fruit to about 5,000 people in two hours.
Stanton kept thinking about the cherries and the land he loved. In 2012, by then in his 70s, he and his family put Stanton Orchards’ 172.5 acres into a conservation easement with the Leelanau Conservancy, protecting cherry lands for generations.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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