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The Yellow and the Green

Cather, and her persona Jim Burden in My Antonia, were perhaps a bit too mystic about ground cherries, but it sort of makes sense. Cather in her Nebraska novels is a deeply Romantic author, with a certain twist: she embraces sensual experiences, often as triggers to mystic insights. So Jim lies down in the garden, picks and munches a few ground cherries, and proceeds to become one with nature.

Whereas, in a more practical vein, at the Cass County Fair of 1874, Mr. W. H. Leverett placed some excellent exhibits of vegetables, comprising not only standard veg but also some niche items: citrons, for instance, and — ground cherries.

We do not know what Mr. Leverett did with these yellow gems, but up and down the prairies, they showed up early as various products in county fair competitions. In 1889 Mrs. Frank Formaneck entered her ground cherry preserves at the Richland County Fair in Hankinson and won a 1st Premium prize for household manufactures.

Ground cherries, however, although appreciated by many, never became a standard in prairie gardens and cuisine. The reason, certainly, is that they are putzy — beginning with the harvest.

Their growth habit is sprawling. The husked fruit is not ripe until it falls off the branch, so you have to get down and reach around on the ground under the sprawl to collect it. After that you have to sit down and husk the marble-size cherries.

Foodie culture of the 21st century, however, is rediscovering ground cherries. They are for sale in trendy markets in Texas and are being delivered by community-supported-agriculture operations in urban places. In 2010, Smithsonian Magazine published a feature titled, “Five Ways to Eat Ground Cherries.” The Smithsonian is a venerable institution, but I don’t think its author really had much experience with ground cherries, so if you’re thinking of getting into the game, let me coach you.

To begin with, ground cherries traditionally have been regarded as a fruit substitute and used in sweet dishes. Some people say they taste like pineapple, but I disagree; cooked ground cherries taste peachy to me. Because they are labor-intensive, I wouldn’t bother with them for jam or preserves, except as a novelty.

They make good pies and cobblers, however. My personal favorite for ground cherries in a sweet dish is as turnovers — or more specifically, in Hemetschwenger, the Mennonite version of a turnover. Hemetschwenger use a butter-based dough that I think goes well with the peachy ground cherries.

On the savory side, the Smithsonian author suggests using ground cherries in salads, and I endorse that — although the salads need not be as twee as the ground cherry and roast beet salad she describes. You can throw ground cherries into any salad the way you might use cherry tomatoes, keeping in mind they will be sweeter. They go well with blue cheese when topping a salad.

Ground cherries also work great in a tort, as you would use tomatoes. Just remember this is a savory dish; don’t sweeten it, the ground cherries are plenty sweet; just select the oil and herbs you like for it.

Finally, various culinary enthusiasts have discovered ground cherry salsa, as I did many years ago. I encourage all to use the name I applied to a simple salsa combining ground cherries with Anaheim chiles: “The Yellow and the Green.” I trust you get the reference, and hope you will credit me along with Cather as one who has mingled ground cherries with literature on the prairies.

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