Now that the cherry season is starting in Utah…
During childhood visits to Utah I heard a legend I’d never heard before and have never heard since, but which was quirky enough to stay with me all these years; namely that eating cherries and drinking cold milk together would invariably be fatal.
Until yesterday I did not know that the legend became widespread after the 1850 death of U.S. President Zachary Taylor.
Taylor became sick while eating cherries and drinking cold milk after Fourth of July festivities and died not long afterward.1 Regardless of whether the legend existed before his death or was entirely due to his death, the cherry and cold milk legend persisted well after many other 19th-century legends faded.
Another fruit-related legend comes from the Gubler family of Santa Clara, Utah. Young Swiss immigrant Pauline Rösli married established Swiss immigrant, Casper Gubler. Ten days after the birth of her first child, Pauline “had such a ‘hankering’ for green grapes that she got up out of bed, and went out into the lot and ate some. She died a few days after; her baby died also.”
This second story brings together superstitions of food and childbirth. It does not specify whether her death was supposed to be caused by her getting up so soon, or the green grapes, or some combination of the two, but as in the story of President Taylor, it attempts to pin down a cause of death and explain the mystery of mortality before the era of modern medical care.
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Whether you’re from Utah or elsewhere, have you heard the cherry and cold milk legend? Do the people repeating the legend believe it? Have you violated this food taboo? (How do fresh cherries and cold milk taste together? Does that little restaurant in Heber serve cherry milkshakes?) Are you familiar with other food-related legends or superstitions? How and why do they persist into modern times?2
- A later historian wondered if Taylor had been poisoned, so his body was exhumed and chemical analyses were done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but the results suggested that his death was due to Cholera morbus. Cholera morbus is the historical term for what was usually rotavirus, norovirus, or Campylobacter, and it does not refer to the cholera caused by Vibrio cholerae, the cause of the great epidemics in the 19th century and recently in Haiti. [↩]
- The picture of Utah cherries, “Almost Ready,” is as provided at flickr, courtesy of arbyreed, used under a non-commercial Creative Commons license. [↩]