The Cherry on Top

The ice cream sundae, a split banana, three scoops of ice cream, whipped cream topping, and a special cherry on top. It is a dessert like no other. In some way the cherry on top makes it special.

Have you ever had”fruit cocktail”? For some folks it is the best way to enjoy fruit. I do not have that opinion. For three different seasons I worked in a cannery owned by F&P. They canned fruit. The first season I was on the clean-up crew. I sprayed the machines, the belts, and swept the floors with live steam. I also wore a rubber suit while doing this. I had a hot steam hose in my hand, and I had two quarts of body sweat in my boots every night.

The second season I was hired to put the lids on canned peaches. I sat by a machine loaded with the lids that I maintained, sitting between a cooker of peaches in cans without lids, then my machine, and right behind me a cooker for peaches in cans with lids. Hundreds of thousands of cooked canned peaches.

I always looked at the lines of workers that sorted the peaches. As long as they had peaches on the conveyor belts, then I had to load lids in my machine. When the peaches stopped, then my day was over.

I watched the peaches get sorted with interest. Periodically a peach would come by with a spot of rot. The worker would dig into the peach with a coring knife and pop out the rot. The peach would then be tossed on a different conveyor belt. Peaches that fell on the floor would be sprayed with water and then go on that same belt. Only pristine peaches would stay on the belt heading to my cooker and lid machine.

Where did the other conveyor belt go, with the diseased and rejected peaches? On a break I followed the conveyor belt to another room in the cannery. It went into the Fruit Cocktail Room, where the rejected peaches were joined with the rejected pears, where both were chopped into bite-sized pieces, then grapes were added, and finally, nine cherry halves per can (depending on the size of the can). Then the can was filled with a syrup before going into the cooker.

Fruit cocktail was once rejected fruit, (except for the grapes and the cherries).

Later that week I made a plan to visit the fruit cocktail room to bag some samples. I headed straight for the cherry station. No one was around, so I got a paper cup and dipped into the 55 gallon barrel of cherries, making sure to include a little syrup with the full cup of cherries. As I turned down a secluded alley between the steam cookers, I took a big gulp of the paper cup. The first thing I noticed is that the syrup was nasty, tasteless water. The second thing was that the mouthful of cherries was completely tasteless, not even a shred of the expected taste of cherries. What a shock! I had to spit the half-chewed cherries into the nearest garbage can.

Somehow the cherries absorbed the syrup favor after the steam cooking, but the fruit itself had all the cherry flavor removed before being added to the can. That was a serious life lesson for me, and my opinion of “the cherry on top” changed after that.

The third season I was placed in charge of the machine that put nine half-cherries per can. The cans were empty in the machine, they were tipped to their side at the right position, and a narrow conveyor belt with a line of cherries riding on top would then be aimed at the empty can. Like a machine gun, you could hear nine half cherries hit the bottom of the can, and then the can would tip right side up, while another can behind it would be shot with another nine half-cherries. The cans would then go to the next station and receive a load of grapes before getting the rejected fruit and syrup.

My job was to keep the funnel full of cherries. I had a very heavy 55 gallon barrel of cherries to keep the funnel filled. It just so happened that I ended my time in the cannery because of the cherries. I was moving a barrel of cherries into position when I slipped slightly, and the handle of the moving dolly jabbed my right side with some force. Later that night I passed out from a swollen appendix.

The next day I made the local hospital famous for removing the largest infected appendix without having it burst. My appendix lived in a jar in the basement of the hospital for years afterwards. And after recovery, I never went back to the cannery.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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