The Fourth of July 4th is coming, and we are now entering into the cherry season, one of the great glories of summer in Michigan.
It’s a subject near and dear to my heart, as my ancestors were among the first people to plant Montmorency cherries (called “sours” to distinguish them from the dark red eating cherries, “sweets”) in northern Michigan.
My great- great grandfather, Eugene Power, started a family farm near Elk Rapids, today still a tiny town northeast of Traverse City, late in the 19th century. He was among the first local farmers to plant cherries, which thrived on the sandy, well-drained soil and for a time became the dominant crop in the area.
The location – between Grand Traverse Bay and Elk Lake – was perfect, as the lakes moderated the cold winter winds and usually delayed flowering in the spring until after the last frost. Even today, much of the land around Traverse City that hasn’t been raped by the developers remains in cherry orchards.
My father, also called Eugene Power, remembered his first job was out on the family farm, picking cherries for 10 cents a 30-pound lug. That was a whole lot of cherries for a dime, but back in those days a dime went a whole lot farther than today. My grandfather, Glenn, who started out as a surveyor, helped lay out the newly planted cherry trees in long, straight lines.
There is a family picture of great-grandfather Eugene standing in his orchard, wearing a white shirt and necktie and a Panama hat, with a farm hand holding a pruning knife standing behind him.
It wasn’t easy being a pioneering family way back then. You couldn’t be sure the trees, once planted, would thrive or bear well. And there was always the risk of a late frost. Prices, too, bumped around a lot; a big crop meant low prices but high volume, while a small crop brought high price but low return. And capital, once lost, was very hard to regain.
Family legend says the Powers were all a bit eccentric. My ancestors left a secure position in Farmington – an Oakland County town they founded when they first came to Michigan in 1824 – to move up north and start a farm. My grandfather left the farm to become a businessman in Traverse City, while my father struck out on his own as an entrepreneur in Ann Arbor. And I started my own newspaper company, largely from scratch, in 1965.
But that was the way of the pioneers, my ancestors and the ancestors of countless Michiganders who made our state and our nation what it is and whose creativity and, well, eccentricity made all the difference in the new lands of the New World. Reflecting on this history makes me feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants looking back in pride on our accomplishments as a nation and hope at our shadowed future. It’s that spirit of hope and confidence that makes our July 4 national holiday so important to so many.
And so, just in time for the sour cherry season, here’s our family recipe for Montmorency cherry pie:
Power family Montmorency cherry pie
For the crust:
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup lard
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
2 tablespoons ice water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
(My wife, Kathy, doesn’t use lard for her crust; she uses just two sticks of unsalted butter. But traditionalists may like this historic recipe.)
For the filling:
4 cups pitted red sour cherries
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
½ teaspoon almond extract
¼ teaspoon mace
3 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
For the crust: Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the shortenings and mix with your fingers or a pastry cutter until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Whisk together the ice water, vinegar and one of the eggs. Add to the flour mixture and mix with a fork until combined; do not overwork the dough. Form into a ball and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
For the filling: In a large bowl combine the cherries, sugars, tapioca, almond extract, mace and optional kirsch, if desired. Allow to stand for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. Line a 9-inch pie plate with it and trim the edges. Place the filling in the pie shell and dot the top with butter. Roll the remaining dough and make into a lattice top. Whisk the remaining egg with 2 teaspoons of water and brush the egg wash into the top.
Bake for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and continue taking for 30 or 40 minutes longer, or until the juices are bubbling up in the center of the pie.
Cool briefly and eat warm.
My father preferred his pie with vanilla ice cream. I’m more of a purist, so I skip the ice cream. But I do like the pie cold for breakfast.
Either way, it’s a delicious way to celebrate Michigan cherries and mark our national holiday.