Easing the Flesh from the Pit: On Cherry Pies and “Women’s Work”

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It’s finally pie cherry season. Last week, I went to the farmers’ market to look for pie cherries. When I found some, not wanting to be greedy, I only bought four pounds. Somewhere on the Internet I read that sour cherry season is the shortest fruit season of them all. Humans have about two weeks to pick the ripe fruit before it falls off the tree and rots. For this reason, fresh pie cherries are coveted by bakers and chefs alike.

Although I didn’t want to be greedy that first week at the farmers’ market, I went back the next week and declared, “I’ll take them all” to the one seller with sour cherries. I probably overpaid for them, but my avarice didn’t mind forking over a wad of cash and I proudly walked away with two flats of cherries.

Later, I was standing in the kitchen separating cherry pit from flesh. Although pie cherries are considered tart here in the Pacific Northwest, I would put one in my mouth and suck. These cherries taste “normal” to me, a girl from the Midwest; the prized local eating varieties like Rainiers have always tasted too sweet for me in the same way that the Cascadian landscape strikes me as suspiciously green sometimes.

As an hour of pitting cherries passed, I wondered how many women in my family had done this before me: taken the pit out and preserved the flesh of the fruit in preparation for making something sweet for someone else. Pitting cherries by hand is satisfying work, monotonous. It’s the kind of repetition in the hands that lets you really feel loneliness, or joy, depending on the day. I listen to the click of the pit in one bowl, the plop of the cherry in another, as my hands move back forth in a kind of quiet rhythm that is the aural hallmark of hard work everywhere.

I find myself slurping up coffee from a diner mug with the same noise my paternal grandma used to make as she drank coffee all day in her farmhouse kitchen—an unconscious pursing of wrinkled lips and a noisy inhale of lukewarm, watery, brown liquid while you work and worry silently to yourself.

I’ve never seen a man make a pie before. I wonder if the women in my family, pitting cherries by themselves in humid July kitchens, ever resented being asked to separate the pit from the flesh like this. “Women’s work” is about making the poisonous hard parts disappear, about turning the sour sweet. Pitting cherries by hand is the time for doing this, I know.

On my stepmom’s farm, she had a cherry tree in the yard. I would visit in July, which meant sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, and cherries. One summer, I pulled weeds in my Dad’s pepper patch until my hands blistered. Another summer, we picked cherries for days and pitted them over cookie sheets in the hot kitchen. The acidic juice ran down my arms and would shoot out into my eye. My dad and stepmom laughed at this when it happened. I think they were happy in that kitchen pitting cherries before my stepmom’s hands and legs stopped really working and their marriage turned sour.

After that, they sold the farm and moved to town, to a house with a wheelchair lift in the garage and a handicap shower. That was the end of my stepmom’s pies—cherries or otherwise. Her piecrust was the best I’ve ever tasted. She had learned how to prop herself up in the farm kitchen so she could roll the dough out despite her MS, but in town, she just kept repeating, “The counters aren’t right here. I just can’t get the crust. I don’t know why. Stupidest thing.” She’s been saying that for over a decade now. The kitchen always used to smell of burnt sugar when she baked a pie, because my father insisted you had to bake a pie until it boiled over for it to be good.

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