Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: Cherries and Cold Milk

Guest Post: Cherries and Cold Milk

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - June 03, 2014

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.

* * *

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



  1. 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. []
  2. The picture of Utah cherries, “Almost Ready,” is as provided at flickr, courtesy of arbyreed, used under a non-commercial Creative Commons license. []


  1. In my teens, the legend was that Coca-Cola and aspirin, ingested in the right ratio, would produce a high. I never tried it, so I can’t tell you if it worked.

    And there was a cartoon in the New Yorker, right after the cold fusion nonsense at the University of Utah, which showed a group of people in heaven, standing on a cloud. One man explained to the others that he wasn’t sure what had happened–he had just been trying to show how the right mixture of gin and vermouth would produce cold fusion.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 3, 2014 @ 7:10 am

  2. As a missionary in Argentina the one I always heard was that you should never eat watermelon and drink milk, which most Argentines assumed would be fatal. At least once a year some (American) missionary would stand up at lunch after a mission conference and pull out a box of milk and slice of watermelon and eat and drink (sometimes at the same time). The reaction from the Argentines (and Paraguayans) was quite hilarious.

    Interestingly enough the Chileans (generally) didn’t think that watermelon and milk were fatal, and were amused at the antics of the Argentines.

    Also we as missionaries would occasionally walk into the local ice cream joint and ask them if they had watermelon flavored ice cream. We would get looks of horror and fright as if we had just asked for “cow pie” ice cream. Ahhh, such fun.

    Comment by quantumleap42 — June 3, 2014 @ 7:31 am

  3. This isn’t food related — I can’t think of anything like that — but apparently Koreans are terrified of sleeping in a close room with an electric fan in operation. Something about dying of asphyxiation as circulation from the fan sucks good air away from the sleeper’s face.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 3, 2014 @ 7:36 am

  4. When I was a missionary in Argentina, I brought a fruit salad to Christmas dinner with a family and didn’t know why they weren’t eating it and giving me horrified looks. It turns out that they say to never eat fruit with a meal, only after. It would damage your liver if you did and you would be very sick for a few days.

    Also, I was told if a pregnant mom has a craving, she has to get that food and eat it or the baby will have some deformity. The example they used was red birthmarks on the face were a result of not getting watermelon when the mother craved it. I know men who got up in the middle of the night and did anything to get food, even go to Brazil. They would be blamed if their baby had a deformity.

    Comment by Carol — June 3, 2014 @ 8:15 am

  5. My Grandma kept Clover Club potato chips in her freezer. I’m not sure why, but she lived a long life.

    Comment by Grant — June 3, 2014 @ 9:37 am

  6. Someone in my family – I believe it was my grandfather, who grew up in Wellsville, Utah, – used to relate the story of being beaten for eating a tomato because tomatoes were supposed to be poisonous.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — June 3, 2014 @ 9:39 am

  7. My step-father once became very agitated when I gave my little girl some cherries after she’d had a glass of milk. I laughed at him because he was eating cherry ice cream at the time, but he was certain she’d get very sick or even die from eating cherries with milk.

    Comment by Fiona — June 3, 2014 @ 10:28 am

  8. I first heard the story of President Taylor’s death by cherries a week ago when someone pointed it out to me because I was writing about the building of the Washington Monument–and he ate the cherries and iced milk on the monument grounds where construction was just beginning. But that is the only place I’ve every heard of that as being dangerous.

    However, as a small child in Cache Valley Utah, my mother-in-law would not eat cherries at all. When her parents probed to try to find a reason, she finally pointed out to them that the hymn “Dearest Children, God is Near You,” very explicitly says, “Cherries hurt you, cherries hurt you,” so she did not partake.

    She tells us that canned cherries were considered a cure for anemia, as the red juice was assumed to make the blood more red–at least by one of her whackier aunts.

    Comment by LauraN — June 3, 2014 @ 11:07 am

  9. Yes, quantumleap42, but not just Argentinians: my dad told us about the same fear of watermelon and milk — but from Brazilians! (He learned about this fear while serving as a missionary in central/southern Brazil in the early 1960s.)

    So, I guess it must be an “east of the Andes thing”?

    Comment by David Y. — June 3, 2014 @ 11:31 am

  10. These are some fun stories and traditions. “Cherries hurt you!” :)

    It’s curious to hear the different reports and variations of fruit danger legends and wonder how they began, perhaps during epidemics of warm-weather infectious disease.

    Comment by Amy T — June 3, 2014 @ 11:31 am

  11. In the south of Brazil in the 1960’s many people expressed the idea that not only were watermelon and milk a fatal combination, but also grapes and milk and grapes and watermelon. One woman advised me that in stomach milk hardens unchewed bits of watermelon into stones with lethal effect.

    A belief also held in that area was the “recaida do setimo dia”, which held that if a woman were to leave her bed on the seventh day after she had given birth, she would relapse to her condition immediately after giving birth and so would have to convalesce for an additional seven days.

    Such superstitions remind me of the yet more unreasonable but widely held belief in the United States that voting Republican or Democrat makes a significant difference.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — June 3, 2014 @ 11:56 am

  12. Never heard the cherries and milk one. But my daughter told me the other day that her boyfriend’s family will not take pills with milk (as opposed to water) because it is “really, really” bad for you. That spurred a conversation about the efficacy of certain medicines and grapefruit juice as well as the several taboos during pregnancy. Of course the Chinese have so many food restrictions (when you are pregnant, have a cold, or you live in house facing west) I could not keep up with them all.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 3, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

  13. How nice to have a descendant of Zachary Taylor show up! Since Old Rough and Ready, being a professional military man, was basically apolitical, it stands to reason that his descendant would make an apolitical comment.

    Or maybe he’s just hoping for a revival of the Whigs! (Taylor was the last man elected President as a Whig–only the cherries and milk intervened and let Millard Fillmore, his vice president, gain the distinction of being the last Whig President.)

    Comment by Mark B. — June 3, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

  14. My mom grew up (and consequently so did we) with the saying that if you ate the food before it was blessed you’d get “colery marbles.” We had no idea what that meant. When I started reading 19th century diaries I quickly realized that it was a derivative of the then common affliction of cholera morbus.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 3, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

  15. My mother, and my wife’s mother, both grew up with the story that pork that wasn’t cooked extremely well done (think charred, black, and crunchy on the outside, and dry and white and completely tasteless in the center) would give you trichinosis, an invariably fatal disease as it was explained to us. So my Dad was always trying to cook pork chops to medium well, and Mom would want them to go back in the frying pan, until they were black and tasteless.

    Trichinosis is a real disease, you can get from infected pork, but over the last few years, of the average 10 or so cases in the US each year, most are from consuming wild game. as the parasite has been eliminated from commercial pigs (at least in the US).

    Comment by kevinf — June 3, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

  16. The only thing I have ever heard of was that eating celery and drinking milk would make you have an upset stomach, I ‘ve never tried it

    Comment by cameron — June 3, 2014 @ 11:20 pm

  17. This post reminds me of an entry from my great grandfather’s mission journal in which he blames eating peaches and drinking water on an illness. He was serving in the Southern States Mission in 1898 when he wrote:

    “Mon. July 4
    We spent the 4th traveling walked about 12 miles. I ate several peaches and drank much water. spent the dinner hour with Mr. Willes. spent the night with Jessie Broom after 2 or 3 refusels. I did not feel good feeling the effects of the much water drank and peaches I ate. I remarked to Eld. H. I will start to run in the night. we held a family meeting I read 12 Romans & spoke a few minutes then we retired. Near 2 oclock I awoke with a strong impression that I must seek an outer clime which I did with a seige of vomiting and purging could eat no breakfast scarcely.”

    Comment by Dale Topham — July 21, 2014 @ 10:08 pm