4. Maraschino Cherries
Hailing from the 1800s
In certain households, jars of maraschino cherries start turning up around the holidays. They have so many uses: the frighteningly red fruits do dot the center of pineapples tooth-picked to a ham. They go in cookies, in drinks, and in midcentury salads. In their first iteration, marasca cherries which have been grown on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia since at least 1399 were soaked in a liqueur made from cherry juice, pits, and stems which gave it a slightly more bitter flavor than the syrupy sweet maraschinos of today.
These products were so popular as an expensive American import that it wasn’t long before imitators began making their own cheaper versions. Unfortunately, these were preserved with dangerous chemicals and dye that came from coal-byproducts. (No one appears to have been mortally impacted from the poisoning, thank goodness.) The outrage was so great that the FDA issued a proclamation in 1912 that defined the treats as “marasca cherries preserved in maraschino.”
During Prohibition, cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur were no longer allowed. Luckily, a less alcoholic cherry had already become popular. East Coast factories were producing them made from brined marasca cherries sent all the way from Europe.
Cherry growers of the Pacific Northwest wanted to profit from the craze but the East Coast maraschino makers complained that the U.S.-grown cherries were too squishy. An Oregon State University horticulturist Ernest Wiegand made it his mission to turn Oregon cherries into something resembling maraschinos. After six years, he discovered that using calcium salts to brine the cherries (rather than alcohol) would keep them firm.
By 1940 these chemical-soaked, sugared, flavored, and dyed cherries were so popular that the FDA changed its definition to reflect consumer preference.
Also? They've helped solve crime. Back in 2010, a few beekeepers in New York City noticed a problem with their hives. The honey was the color of cherry Kool Aid. After testing, the beekeepers determined that despite the proliferation of urban farms in the area, the bees were foraging from vats of maraschino cherries at a local factory.
It was a mild inconvenience to the beekeepers but a huge win for the District Attorney’s office. They’d been trying to investigate the maraschino cherry factory for a year, ever since they got a tip about a giant marijuana operation in the basement. The bees gave them an excuse to search the premises twice, eventually discovering a hidden staircase that led to a 2,500 square foot basement not included on the building’s official plans.