The Drudgery of Cherry Pie

A reflection on what food means to us by the co-author of The Lost Art of Real Cooking and The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home.

I once fell out of love with someone for complaining about cherries. We stood in the orchard with our heads flipped back to peer up through the branches, gnats flying up our noses and ears and sticking to the sour juice dripping from our elbows. He told me it wasn’t actually fun. “And you’re thinking I’m a wuss,” he said, “but just because I don’t appreciate hot, mindless work, doesn’t mean I’m weak.”

Right then, I figured it meant exactly that. I hadn’t intended the orchard as a test, but here it was, a handy measure of drudgery appreciation. Not that I was comfortable, of course. It was smothering hot, and the gnats were hell. Nor was my stamina really any greater, or my moral fiber more refined.

I had just one advantage—the buzzing insects resonated with the buzzing insects of other summers I had loved. I knew the arc of a summer workday, knew how quickly the dew dried and how good lunch would be, and knew how sweet it would be to sit down at the kitchen table and pit cherries at dusk. Even better, I knew how to picture myself in the orchard, sun-toughened and flushed, the humidity and sweat curling my loose hairs. I could see myself in an A-line apron pulling a glorious pie from the oven as red juices bubbled through its lattice, could see the crust shatter into flakes under my fork. It’s so much easier to deal with drudgery if you make it a certain kind of story, and don’t mind considering yourself the hero—a hero on the verge of being discovered by a delightful stranger, most likely.

In fact, I started baking in earnest because I fancied myself in love. Pie is perfect for love. Cutting in the fat, rolling out the dough, picking, pitting, peeling or chopping the fruit—so much drudgery to fuel the imagination. And then you bring it forth, and people have to wait while you cut it up and serve it in a gorgeous performance of generosity and skill. And then someone teases you by singing “Can she bake a cherry pie,” which of course assumes only one gender needs to demonstrate marriageability through pie-baking, but which probably always sounded like an adorably naive criterion anyway. And maybe you blush that they’ve spotted your fanciful wiles, but that doesn’t matter, because sour cherries transcend all such saccharine nonsense, and the pie is viscerally, bracingly good.

(Unless you didn’t bake it long enough and there are still hard tapioca granules in the runny center, but you’ve learned a lot since then, of course.)

That, at any rate, is the secret to my drudgery tolerance. Delightful strangers waiting in the wings for adorably naive cherry pies. Of course, the other, much more obvious “secret” to drudgery tolerance is good old-fashioned conversation—but we aren’t always blessed with real-life company when working. And sometimes, our company doesn’t converse so much as complain.

About complaining. No, I don’t think that fellow was weak for hating the orchard on a summer day. He certainly appreciated other forms of drudgery that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate, but the orchard test did prove that our fancies were significantly divergent.

Sour cherries are not always easy to find. The season is quite short, as the delicate fruit ripens almost all at once, and there’s only one variety planted in the United States. Raw, they’re definitely very sour, but sugar and baking bring out their flavor. To pit them, take a 1 or 1.5” paper clip and insert it into the stem hole of the cherry. Scoop out the pit with a quick flick of the paper clip. Sour cherries can be frozen as-is after pitting. If you can’t find sour cherries, the ubiquitous sweet dark ones will make pie of a very different sort (the sort that needs lots of brandy or amaretto).

Cherry Pie

4.5 - 5 cups pitted sour cherries (6 or more cups unpitted)
3/4 cup sugar
3 T. cornstarch or small tapioca granules
2 T. butter
1/8 tsp. salt
a few drops of almond extract, or a tablespoon or two of brandy or rum
pastry for top & bottom of 9” pie

Preheat the oven to 425

Whisk together sugar, cornstarch or tapioca, and salt. Add the cherries, almond extract or brandy, and toss to coat evenly. Let sit while you roll out the pastry.

Line a 9” pie dish with pastry, leaving a half-inch of dough hanging over the edge. Smear 1 T. of butter over the crust. Pour in the cherries & juices and top with 1 T. of butter, divided into bits. Dab a little water around the edge of the bottom crust, and cover with the top crust. Trim the top crust, then fold the excess bottom crust up over it. Press together and flute. Cut vents in the center of the top crust with the tip of a sharp knife.

Bake at 425 until the crust starts browning, 20-30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 and continue baking until thick juices bubble from the center of the pie, about 45 minutes more. If the top of the pie is nicely brown but the pie isn’t bubbling yet, cover it with tinfoil. If juices are dripping off the pie, put a baking sheet under it.

Let cool for at least 30 minutes. Serve with ice cream.

About the Author

Rosanna Nafziger Henderson

Rosanna Nafziger Henderson grew up in West Virginia and Virginia, hauling firewood, picking blueberries, and selling pies at market. She co-authored The Lost Art of Real Cooking and The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, and she writes about food on her website, Paprikahead. She graduated from Goshen College in 2006 and currently lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and baby.