I fuel up at Le Panier in downtown Seattle. I’ve had breakfast already, but it’s going to be 90 degrees in Wenatchee, so I down a flaky croissant, in case the day turns into eight hours of volunteer labor. Andrew, who must be tall enough to harvest cherries without a ladder, picks me up in his Prius wearing a lovely pressed shirt, slacks, and trendy lace-up leather shoes. He has the self-assured smile of a very successful car salesman. Back home, I’d been so sure sturdy sneakers and an old t-shirt were appropriate, but now, I’m not so certain. Thank goodness I remembered my cherry-print bobby socks. Andrew notices them immediately.
In high school soccer, I was a forward. I had neither the speed and endurance required of a midfielder, nor the ball skills required near the goal. I thought it was a pretty good gig, hanging out up past midfield, waiting for someone to pass me the ball so that I could score and dance around like I’d actually accomplished something. That is, until one girl started screaming “cherry picker” every time I scored. That made it less fun.
When Andrew, the Washington State Fruit Commission’s resident cherry expert, said he’d take me cherry picking at high season, I jumped. I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t be good at the real thing, especially if I didn’t actually have to grow the cherries myself. And it would be awfully nice if no one hollered at me.
We pull into the packing plant at Bluebird, one of the state’s biggest cherry-packing plants, in Wenatchee, Washington. We meet a man I’ll call Bob, a well-respected cherry grower. Andrew’s arranged for me to pick fruit on Bob’s land. A good-natured old boy who acts a lot more burly than he looks, Bob gives me the once-over and makes a joke about letting me “pick” a box of cherries at the plant and getting me back to Seattle.
Only, it’s not a joke. I feel branded: City Girl. Unfit to pick. It burns.
“I can’t wait to see your land and get up in the trees,” I say, smiling like a champ. Bob steers me into the plant.
A cherry-packing plant is a lot like the inside of a beehive, if modern cartoons are any indication, only there’s a lot less Jerry Seinfeld, and a lot more Spanish. There are two packing lines, which run 24 hours a day during high season: One for the easy-bruising, pink tinted Rainiers, the sweet glitterati whose every move toward a pricey grocery store clamshell is coddled by a gentle stream of cold water, and one for cascades of the rough-and-tumble reds, the cherries universally dumped into the category labeled “dark sweet.” Today, Bluebird is packing for Costco Korea.
I learn that cherries, like shrimp, are categorized by size—only, instead of by pound, it’s by diameter, or how many cherries fit in a row in the bottom of a standard box. A farmer brags about a crop of nine-row cherries, and I wonder out loud whether cherries could be sold by varietal and size, like apples. Andrew and Bob stare at me like I have three heads.
Someone hands me a toolbox-sized container of dark sweets, and we leave the plant.
We blink back the sunlight, and I tell Bob I came to pick the dark sweets, like the ones I’m already munching on. I’d love to taste a few different varieties, and see if I can tell the difference.
“Did you bring your bucket?” asks Bob.
I admit I didn’t. But I brought a good hat, and harvested all the Ziploc bags my house could provide. I’m still smiling, because I’m pumped to pick, but it occurs to me that it’s possible I won’t.
“I tell my pickers they have to bring all their own equipment. No bucket, no picking,” says Bob. I wonder whether he skips his kids’ birthdays. “But I’ll show you my trees.”
I smile again. I can’t think of anything else to do.
Bob’s orchards are beautiful; each tree has a box seat in a gently undulating stadium overlooking the Columbia River. He guides me through a newly planted block, explaining how most growers plant different varieties of dark sweets to extend the picking season. (Bob harvests the burgundy-hued Chelans first, then moves onto the light-fleshed Bentons, then the traditional Bings, then to his Vans, which taste slightly more sour.)
“You see them in the markets,” says Andrew, picking some of each varietal for me to take home and taste. “You just don’t know you see them.”
I spot the ladders. They’re shaped like flattened Eiffel Towers, and seem almost as tall, with a big adjustable pole shooting toward the ground (for balance, I presume, but it does look like a great way to get hurt). I watch some of the pickers maneuver them around, plunking the last fruit off a few almost-empty branches into the big metal buckets they’ve strapped to themselves with old GM seatbelts.
“Can I pick some?” I ask. “Sure,” says Bob. He points to four cherries hanging from the lowest branch of a nearly naked tree. I pretend he’s kidding. Andrew starts looking nervous. I might be about to ruin his relationship with this guy, one of the finest of Washington’s 2,500 growers.
“Are there any other parts of the orchard with ripe cherries that haven’t been picked yet?” I ask. On the road to Bob’s house, we saw trees roped with ruby fruit, and I know there are 37,000 acres of cherries in the state, all ripening now. One of them must be here.
“Yup,” he says, pointing north. He turns south to head back to the car.
Maybe Bob’s playing Little Red Hen. Maybe I wasn’t here early enough. Or maybe I really don’t have the chops to pick.
There must be more to cherry picking than picking cherries, I decide. I mean, I’m not exactly a frail-looking person, and I don’t think I look that inept, and it’s no secret that I came for a reason. I’m wearing the socks. I try again.
I point to my four cherries, and ask Bob what it takes to be a cherry picker. Is there a special technique? How much training is involved? I ask him to show me how to pick, thinking a roundabout approach might actually get me up a tree. I didn’t put sunscreen on to stand in the shade all afternoon.
Bob tells me he hires people by the day, and submits them to a roughly ten-minute safety session each morning. Since the limbs lay the groundwork for the next year’s blossoms early in the season, it’s important not to actually yank entire branches off the tree, but the difficulty is in the hours his workers spend picking—starting at dawn—rather than in the actual picking technique. They’re told to pick cherries from the stems, instead of just yanking on the fruit, because cherries that are ripped at the junction between the fruit and the stem won’t pass inspection. Other than that, picking is picking. He picks my four Vans off and tosses them on the ground nonchalantly. I rescue them.
“So, where can we pick?” There is nothing indirect about my question this time.
“Well, a few years ago, there was a U-Pick place down Grant Road,” says Bob. Then: “Thanks for coming.” He starts loading cherries onto his truck for another trip to the packer.
Back in the Prius, Andrew and I stare at each other. He’s obviously sorry.
“So…I guess we’re not picking?” I ask.
“I guess not,” says Andrew. “I don’t understand.”
We label the cherries and stuff them into a cooler, like a science experiment, and head out to Grant Road, which proves to be a cherry-picking hotspot, if you’re in the cherry-picking industry. There are no U-Pick signs here, or at any of the orchards lining the Wenatchee roads we drive for the next 90 minutes, searching for a place to climb a ladder.
My stomach begins to get raw, either because Andrew and I have downed a pound and a half of the cherries from the packer, or because I can’t figure out why Bob was so protective of his crop. Maybe the orchards are cover for a county-wide meth operation, and I’ve inhaled too much dust. Or maybe I just can’t stomach the math Andrew’s spewing, trying to calculate the carbon sink potential of the Northwest’s massive cherry acreage.
A few people tell us there haven’t been U-Pick cherry orchards here in years. Apparently, Washington’s cherries are in such high demand that growers hold out for top dollar for every single cherry.
That’s nice for Washington, but I’ve come halfway across the state in cherry-print socks to not pick cherries.
We decide to call it a day, and weave our way back to Seattle, stopping at every fruit stand we see, so I can at least come home with the booty I’ve promised my neighbors. I want to search for sour cherries for David, who needs them for a recipe, but Andrew tells me we’re in the wrong part of the state for sours, which make up a miniscule percentage of the state’s crop, anyway.
Andrew buys me a coffee milkshake at Twin Pines Burgers, about halfway back to Seattle. It dulls the pain.
In my kitchen, I arrange six cherries (one of each of the varieties Andrew picked) in a little huddle, stems out, and notice that like people, they’re all a little different. The Vans and the Benton are wearing big ’80s shoulder pads, the Chinook is apple shaped, and the fat Bing—well, let’s just say she’s built for comfort, that girl. The Rainier looks entirely out of place, and I remember the time I overheard a woman tell her daughter in a grocery store on Cape Cod that “rainy-er” cherries—pronounced with three syllables—come from the wetter climates near Seattle.
I close my eyes, and pop the first cherry I touch into my mouth. Badda bing—it’s that big cherry flavor, underneath a skin that’s so fresh and taught I can hear it break between my teeth like the crack of a bat. It’s my first taste, but it must be the best one of the six. I cheat instantly, glancing at my guide: It’s not a Bing, it’s a Vans. The flesh inside is curiously light colored. I bite into a Bing to compare, and indeed, the Bing’s ruby meat is significantly darker than the Vans’s crimson, but I like the Vans better; its afterbite is more astringent. The Chinook is even darker inside than the Bing, almost blackish, and much more tart. Next, the Chelan’s skin is the most crisp of them all. Bob told me his Chelans are super sweet now, since it’s already late in that variety’s season, and indeed, it tastes like a strawberry.
Just the Rainier and the Benton left. I start light. Compared to the dark sweets, the Rainier is so mild, it hardly tastes like the same fruit. It’s like eating a cherry with my nose plugged. I toss it to the dog.
But the Benton—he’s got a thick, snappy skin, and is more acidic than the others, even the Vans. I nibble back and forth between the Benton and the Vans and the Bing, and it’s no contest. The Benton is a cherry lover’s cherry. I know instantly it’s male because he makes me want to speak in Jane Austen: Oh, sweet Benton! He’s my clear favorite.
I do remember the day I fell in love with cherries, before they had genders. Come to think of it, it was the same day I learned how dangerous they can be. I was driving across Washington with a girlfriend to visit colleges on the West Coast, with a fat bag of Bings from the tree in front of my parents’ house. Only, they weren’t quite ripe, so by the time we hit Ellensburg, a couple hours from Seattle, my tongue was pickled pink and my stomach churned with the acidic torture of unripe fruit.
Come to think of it, I’d picked them myself. Maybe Bob was onto me.