Mouthwatering faith

“Pretty please? With a cherry on top?”

You’ve said it, right? But maybe you don’t know exactly what you’ve been asking for all along.

There’s this town called Zadar, on Croatia’s sunny Dalmatian coast. Like most European towns of antique provenance, it has a unique and inventive history of fermenting its indigenous flora. (Seriously, the human ingenuity for this sort of thing is incredible. If it sprouts out of the ground, someone, somewhere, has found some way to help it achieve functional immortality by letting it mingle with the right kind of yeast, distilling it, and socking it into a bottle or barrel).

There’s a cherry that grows really well around Zadar: the marasca variation of the prunus cerasus. It’s a sour and dense little thing, its countenance deep and purple like cordovan leather. Folks from Zadar earned a reputation for a delicious clear liqueur made from the cherries; sometimes, they’d add some fresh cherries to a batch, to soak, sweeten and turn quite scrumptious.

Thus was born the maraschino cherry. You’d be correct in thinking that “maraschino” sounds more Italian than Croatian. Zadar was under considerable political upheaval in the early 20th, and lots of marasca farmers moved to Italy with clippings from their trees in tow. Today, the most famous and available version of the liqueur is made by Luxardo, an Italian company, and presents itself in a slender and tall green bottle, wrapped in woven straw (called a fiasco, and a traditional method of preventing the glass from chipping in transit).

You also might be thinking that this kind of maraschino cherry doesn’t sound anything like the ones you’re familiar with. The nuclear-red ones that sit, plump and gleaming, in that vat at the Bulk Barn. Or perched on top of your sundae like a treacly Eye of Sauron. Or – and I shudder – lurking like Jaws at the bottom of your Old Fashioned.

A hunger for God

According to the writer Amy Stewart, American growers had developed their own method of making “maraschino” cherries in the early 20th century. Her description of that method is not for the faint of palate: cherries were bleached in sulphur dioxide, which removed all their colour. That made them mushy, so calcium carbonate (a paint additive) was introduced to lend them some structural vigour. Stewart writes that what was left after this process was basically “nothing but bleached cellulose in the shape of a cherry,” to which red dye was added (derived from coal tar), as well as a flavour extract called benzaldehyde, and sugar syrup.

Gross, right? But folks in the temperance movement loved it. They promoted the American cherry as one without the “entangling alliances” found in the “distillate of some foreign province.” They were so influential that Stewart says that the real deal cherries from Croatia and Italy became disgusting in the eyes of Americans, and the chemically-treated ones became wholesome. Eventually the FDA declared that pretty much any chemically preserved cherry could be referred to as a maraschino.

Thankfully, today you can readily find both the fake and the real maraschino cherries. Luxardo makes a splendid version of the latter. I love a story with a happy ending.

But that’s not why I tell this tale. What interests me – as an avocational imbiber and as an amateur theologian – is how our appetites are shaped and nurtured. How does real food and real drink lead to real satisfaction? What happens to our sense of taste, and thus our desire, when all that’s on offer is something artificial, industrial, cheap?

I wonder whether we Protestants are especially susceptible to forgetting the embodied dimension of our faith – that God is someone for whom we hunger and thirst. The Christian life ought to be a mouthwatering affair, yet we so often content ourselves with chintzy simulacra, thinking that the right idea is what matters. I think of the battery-operated Christ candle at my church, or those trendy multi-site churches where the pastor is piped in on the big screen, or that meagre thimbleful of Welch’s every once and awhile; all are suggestive of the real thing, but like those American cherries, they all fall quite short. What tangible, tasty practices could we introduce to entice our tastebuds, to help us find what we’ve been asking for all along?   


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