There’s a story that the Egyptian caliph al-Aziz was very fond of cherries; so fond that he had a servant in Lebanon who tied cherries to the legs of carrier pigeons, who would fly them to Egypt each day for the caliph’s breakfast.
And then there’s another story, an old English carol, about Mary and Joseph walking in a grove of cherries. Mary asked Joseph to bring her some cherries, since she was with child and could hardly climb up to fetch them herself; Joseph responded, peevishly, with “let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee with child”. At this point the unborn Jesus communicated with the cherry trees and asked them to bow their branches down, so that Mary could “have cherries at command”.
These supernatural and superexpensive lengths don’t seem excessive; cherries are really really nice, in strong contention for the coveted position of “my favourite food”. I’ve happily eaten a pound at a sitting, though perhaps that isn’t really such a lot - compare it, for example, to the mountains eaten by Elizabethan forerunners of today’s competitive eating (recorded by Horatio Busino, an Italian visitor to England in the early seventeenth century). Back in the early 1600s, cherries were sold in London streets still on their branches, and “it was an amusement to go out into the orchards and eat fruit on the spot, in a sort of competition of gormandize between the city belles and their admirers”.
It’s an odd competition, but no odder than “tie cherry stalks into a knot to demonstrate that you’re good at kissing and/or oral sex” (neither of which traditionally involve tying things into knots with your tongue, unless I’ve misunderstood something grievously). If you’re going put bits of cherry into your mouth for competitive purposes, it might as well be the bits that actually taste nice. On one occasion, back in Busino’s time, a young woman ate twenty pounds of cherries at a sitting, outdoing her closest competitor by two and a half pounds, and a character from Katherine Mansfield’s In a German Pension by sixteen:
He sat down, tugging at a white-paper package in the tail pocket of his coat.
“Cherries,” he said, nodding and smiling. “There is nothing like cherries for producing free saliva after trombone playing, especially after Grieg’s ‘Ich Liebe Dich.’ Those sustained blasts on ‘liebe’ make my throat as dry as a railway tunnel. Have some?” He shook the bag at me.
“I prefer watching you eat them.”
“Ah, ha!” He crossed his legs, sticking the cherry bag between his knees, to leave both hands free. “Psychologically I understood your refusal. It is your innate feminine delicacy in preferring etherealised sensations…Or perhaps you do not care to eat the worms. All cherries contain worms. Once I made a very interesting experiment with a colleague of mine at the university. We bit into four pounds of the best cherries and did not find one specimen without a worm.”
This was more or less true; the young woman who ate twenty pounds of cherries must have eaten at at least half a pound of worms in the process. Even now, home-grown cherries are likely to be riddled with the things. There’s no point in examining them for clues, either - the eggs are laid through a hole so small as to be invisible, and any hole big enough to see is an exit, where the fat white worm has wriggled out. This means that cherries without a hole in them are, if anything, more dangerous, since any worms will still be inside. The only solution seems to be to break each cherry open before eating it - or if you’re only a bit concerned, to drop the cherries in water, and throw out any that float as probable worm-harbourers.
Despite all this talk of worms, I’m still intending to get some cherries as soon as I’ve finished this post. Ideally, of course, I’d have them tied to the legs of birds and flown in through the window, but perhaps I’d choose ducks rather than pigeons. For midsummer a week or two ago we had a twelve-course lunch-turning-into-dinner (full menu here), and the duck and cherry salad was easily my favourite course, so having all the ingredients delivered in one easy bundle would be ideal. (Yes, I know I said salads were universally pointless. It turns out I just wasn’t including enough summer fruit.)