In Door County, ‘life is just a bowl of cherries’

These jars of cherries at Seaquist Orchards look just like the ones my grandparents canned when I was a child. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
These jars of cherries at Seaquist Orchards look just like the ones my grandparents canned when I was a child. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
People enjoy the cherry pit spit contest at Seaquist Orchards in the village of Sister Bay. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
People enjoy the cherry pit spit contest at Seaquist Orchards in the village of Sister Bay. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
White Gull Inn in Fish Creek serves French toast stuffed with cherries and cream cheese and garnished with bacon, a dish that was the winner of the Best Breakfast in American Challenge on Good Morning America. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
White Gull Inn in Fish Creek serves French toast stuffed with cherries and cream cheese and garnished with bacon, a dish that was the winner of the Best Breakfast in American Challenge on Good Morning America. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)

When we were kids, my sisters and I sat with Grandma and Grandpa Streelman at their kitchen table pitting cherries with old-fashioned hairpins after going to the orchard earlier in the day to pick the fruit. Then they would can most of the cherries, and Grandma would bake cherry pies with a lattice top crust or make my favorite cherry crisp.

My recent cherry trip to Door County, Wisconsin, where I picked cherries and ate and drank many things cherry, brought back these memories.  I talked to other people who remembered doing the same hairpin trick as children. Nowadays, there are hand-held metal pitters for your kitchen or big machines that pit thousands of cherries at once.

At Seaquist Orchards in Sister Bay, owner Dale Seaquist talked about his 1,000-acre orchard, the largest in Door County, and told us that he now uses a machine that shakes the trees and captures the falling cherries in an upside down umbrella gadget. Seaquist and his granddaughter Carrie showed us the drum-like machine that pitted thousands of cherries in minutes. My grandparents would have marveled at that.  After sampling a variety of cherry products as well as seeing jars of canned cherries just like my grandparents made, I joined in the cherry pit spit contest. I was leading the women at 17 feet until the end when someone spit a pit three feet farther.

Then after picking some bright red Montmorency tart cherries from the shady side of the tree on that hot, sunny day, we made “cherry bounce,” which I had never heard of, but my Wisconsin son-in-law knew what it was. We washed our cherries and then packed a pint jar two-thirds full, added about one-third cup sugar and filled the remaining space with brandy. I saved it for a Christmas drink and garnish.

Then at Country Ovens in rural Door County, the company produces Montmorency tart dried cherries and tart cherry juice full of antioxidants that it is marketing to sports teams like the University of Minnesota for the multitude of health benefits.

More than cherries

In the 1950s and ’60s Door County reigned supreme as the nation’s cherry capital with more than a million cherry trees. While the Traverse City, Michigan, area now claims the title, Door County has the history and the stories. The Door County peninsula, a finger of land north of Green Bay, is surrounded by the water of Lake Michigan. The land, which is dotted with small towns and woods around the bays and rolling farm land in the middle, is rocky limestone underneath with just a little topsoil. Early settlers discovered that cherry trees flourished there because they have a shallow root system suitable for this shallow soil.

During World War II when there was a shortage of pickers, German prisoners of war living in local internment camps helped harvest the cherries. When the demand for fresh cherries dropped as fewer women were baking pies, the cherry orchards expanded their offerings to include juice (which they used to throw away), jams, jellies, salsa, and dried and chocolate-covered cherries. Posters at the Door County Historical Museum in Sturgeon Bay tell the story.

The Door County tourist season is mid-May to October, and most homes and family-owned businesses have beautiful flowerbeds displaying a profusion of color. The quaint villages are clean and welcoming. The beaches with their sparkling water and sea gulls flying overhead are reminiscent of the sea shore. Tourists also go there for hiking, bicycling, kayaking and other summer sports, and for summer theaters. I’ve enjoyed many of those things before, so on this trip, since it was the season, I focused on cherries.

For my dinner the first night at the Carrington Pub and Grill in Egg Harbor, I ordered a thick slab of tender pork ribs with cherry sauce, cherry crisp for dessert and wine with a lovely red cherry essence.

Cherrries were on the menu wherever we went. At Rawleys Bay Resort we enjoyed a cherry buffet and then walked out to the pier to look out at the fishing boats and saw a mink, slick from the water, climbing among the rocks.

The following day at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek. we dined on French toast stuffed with cherries and cream cheese, a dish that was the winner of the Best Breakfast in American Challenge on Good Morning America.

Eagles and whitefish

At nearby Peninsula State Park, we stopped at an overlook to see the lake, Strawberry Island and out across the bay. A bald eagle swooped by. We cautiously climbed an old fire tower for an even better view. And we did a Segway ride out in the country past a Seaquist cherry orchard.

The traditional Door County fish boil at the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim included cherry pie for desert. Fish is cooked outside in a big kettle while everyone sits around in a circle watching. First in the kettle is salt and then potatoes, onions and freshly caught whitefish. Then it is all flamed up to cut the fat. The fish is delicious. Afterwards, we saw a stunning cherry-red sunset over the bay.

All the cherry dishes and food products and the technology of picking and processing cherries nowadays would have amazed Grandma and Grandpa but they would have enjoyed it all, just like I did. I can still picture all of us sitting at their kitchen table pitting cherries, and then I recall how they would bring jars of their canned cherries to my house when they’d visit in the fall. When I got home from Door County, I called my sisters and we shared these fun memories of Grandma and Grandma.

“Life is just a bowl of cherries
“So live and laugh at it all!”

By songwriters Lew Brown/Ray Henderson

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7818.

Link to photo gallery for more photos of Door County.


The 21st annual Cherry Fest will be held Aug. 1 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Lakeside Park, Jacksonport on the east side of the Door County peninsula. Enjoy a variety of cherry foods, craft items, a musical performance, historical society booth and kids’ activities. For more information call 920-559-0570 or go to www.jacksonporthistoricalsociety.org.


Enjoy a taste of heaven from Door County!

from White Gull Inn

Cherry Stuffed French Toast           

Yield:  6 servings

1 loaf unsliced egg bread
2  (8 oz.) pkgs. cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups tart Montmorency cherries, drained, divided
3 eggs
1/2 cup milk
cinnamon
powdered sugar

Trim ends from loaf and cut bread into six 1.5 inch thick slices. Make a cut three-quarters of the way through the middle of each slice to create a pocket. (Bread will appear to have two separate slices, but will be joined together at bottom.) Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together cream cheese and one cup of the cherries. Spread approximately 1/6 of the mixture into the pocket of each slice of bread. Gently press slices together, evenly distributing filling.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs and milk together. Dip stuffed slices into egg mixture and coat all sides. Place immediately on a lightly oiled, heated griddle and sprinkle with cinnamon. Cook over medium heat until golden brown, turning to cook second side.
Remove cooked slices from griddle and place on a cutting board. Gently cut each piece in half, forming two triangles. Arrange two triangles on individual plates. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and remaining cherries. Serve with maple syrup and butter.


Cherry Bounce

4 cups Door County Tart Cherries
1 cup sugar
vodka, brandy or whisky

Take a large container (or split this recipe into four quart jars). Use four cups tart cherries with the pits still in, cover with 1 cup sugar, and top with vodka, brandy or whisky… I’d recommend brandy for any true Wisconsinite. Stir and let sit in a cool, dark place until November when you may take a small taste after Thanksgiving dinner to ‘test’ how your batch is coming along. Reserve the rest until Christmas.


From Bistro at Liberty Square

Baked Cherry Oatmeal

Door County cherries
5 cups regular oatmeal
1 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
4 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup safflower oil
2 cups skim milk or 2% milk

Preheat oven to 325° F.
In large bowl mix together oatmeal, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and baking powder.
In a separate bowl mix together eggs, safflower oil and milk.
Mix ingredients from both bowls together. Oil a 9x13 Pyrex pan. Place a 1 1/2 inch layer of pitted Door County cherries on the bottom of the dish. Pour the other ingredients over the top of the fruit.
Bake for 27 minutes or until firm. Serve warm (or can be reheated in a microwave).


from Rowleys Bay Restaurant

Tart Cherry Cake

1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar (plus more for sifting over the top before serving).
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
3 eggs
3 Tblsps. sour cream
2 cups pitted Door County tart cherries

Preheat oven to 350° F.
Beat butter in your mixer till soft, smooth and fluffy. Mix in the powdered sugar and the lemon zest. Stir baking powder into the flour, add half of the mixture to the bowl and mix. Add eggs and continue mixing until smooth. Mix in the rest of the flour then add the sour cream and mix until smooth.
Grease or butter a rectangular 9 X 13 pan and shake some flour in the pan to prevent the cherries from sticking. Pour batter into pan and spread evenly. Place cherries evenly over the entire cake; they will sink as the cake bakes.
Bake for 35 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean when placed in the cake portion; the rest will be wetter. Let cool briefly if you can keep the hungry away, and then sift or sprinkle powdered sugar over the cake and serve immediately!


From Savory Spoon Cooking School

Arugula Salad with Blue Cheese, Fennel and Dried Cherries       

Serves 6

4 Tblsps. spicy cherry jam
3 Tblsps. white-wine vinegar or seasonal vinegar
3 Tblsps. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, minced very fine (1 tablespoon)
table salt and ground black pepper
1⁄2 small fennel bulb, cored, trimmed of stalks, and sliced very thin (about 1 cup); fronds chopped coarse (about 1⁄4 cup); extra fronds for garnish
5 ozs. lightly packed baby arugula (8 cups)
1⁄2 cup dried cherries or 6 ounces red seedless grapes, halved lengthwise (about 1 cup)
3 ozs. Wisconsin artisan blue cheese, crumbled (3/4 cup)
1⁄2 cup chopped pecans, dry toasted

Whisk jam, vinegar, oil, shallot, 1⁄4 tsp. each salt and pepper in large bowl. Toss fennel with half of the vinaigrette; let stand 20 minutes. Add arugula, fennel fronds and cherries or grapes; toss with additional dressing and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
Divide salad among individual plates; top each with a portion of blue cheese and pecans. Serve immediately.


 

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