It’s National Cherry Festival time again — and there are Cherries!

A view from the midway ferris wheel at the national Cherry Festival, with the festival grounds and West Bay in the background.

By MIKE NORTON

My ears are ringing with the memory of jet engines. The air is filled with the delicate scent of bratwurst and elephant ears, and several thousand people seem to have appeared overnight outside my window.

It must be Cherry Festival Week! Which means I won’t be getting much work done.

Here at Ground Zero, right across the street from the main festival grounds, I get a ringside seat at the whole improbable spectacle: the bayside stage, the games and competitions, the midway with its lights and noises, that annual display of airborne acrobatics. And somewhere during the week, of course, I get to sneak out for a guilt-free order of chili fries.

For over 80 years, Traverse City has been celebrating its relationship with the tasty cherry with a lollapalooza collection of concerts, games, competitions and parades. And if you thought that the disastrous failure of the 2012 tart cherry crop might be putting a crimp in the festivities, you’d be wrong – if anything, this year’s festival seems more tenaciously cheerful than ever. The cherry industry has dealt with bad harvests before.

Still, it’s a timely reminder to the rest of us that fruit-growing remains tremendously important to Traverse City – not simply because it’s a major component of our economy, but because it’s woven more deeply than we usually acknowledge into our landscape, our  folklore, our very sense of who we are. We may not all spend a lot of time thinking about those orchards and vineyards, but if they disappeared we would immediately feel the loss.

That’s why it’s always been important that among the car shows, dock-jumping dog contests, country-western concerts, volleyball tournaments, talent shows and parades, there are still events and demonstrations that remind everybody why there’s a Cherry Festival in the first place. Some are playful and even a little silly – but who doesn’t love a cherry-pit spitting contest or a pie-eating contest?  And some are really pretty impressive.

This year’s small harvest notwithstanding, you can still buy cherries at the Cherry Festival.

Take, for instance, one of the festival’s week-long events, the Cherry Connection, which takes visitors out to a working 10-acre research farm in the hill country of the Leelanau Peninsula – the heart of Cherry Country. At the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, operated by Michigan State University Extension, you can learn how cherries and other fruits are grown and processed, and sample some of the newest cherry products. The Cherry Connection also features all sorts of “cherry” fun for kids, including a petting zoo, hands-on experiments, and a kids’ poster coloring contest.

You can drive out to the station yourself, but an even better way to get there is to take the free shuttle that runs from Garland Street on the west side of the Traverse City Visitor’s Center, which leaves every 30 minutes between 9:30 a.m. and noon.

Another major “cherry” feature at the Festival has long been the Cherries Grand Buffet, a massive culinary experience where cherries take center stage in appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks – an effective way to demonstrate our signature fruit’s versatility and adaptability. This year’s buffet  — held at noon on Friday at the Park Place Hotel Dome — is especially appropriate, since it’s built around a “farm to fork” theme emphasizing cherry-based recipes developed by local farm and orchard families. The food will be prepared by the Park Place culinary team, including “entrée dishes with a selection of beef, chicken, and even a Cherry Mediterranean Tuna Salad; sautéed veggies with a cherry twist; a dried cherry pine nut rice pilaf; and an array of salads, all complemented with creative seasonings and cherries.

Even though it doesn’t have a lot to do with cherries, I’m really glad to see the return of an event that many of us have missed for several years – the Cherryland Band Classic, which brings some of the best high school marching bands in the U.S. and Canada to Traverse City’s Thirlby Field each summer, is back! On Friday at 6 p.m., the Mid-America Band Directors Association Championship will host its grand finale show at part of the competition.

(If you can’t wait for the Friday main event, there’s also a preliminary show Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Suttons Bay High School Football Field.)

And here’s something else that warms my heart. Thursday night’s Junior Royale Parade has always been one of my favorite events. (I always enjoy seeing locals kids from all the area  schools riding in the floats that the school parents have designed and built for them – a different theme each year.) But lots of kids in the parade won’t be riding this year. They’ll be running.

Old Mission Peninsula native Carter Oosterhouse, who became Traverse City’s own “celebrity TV handyman,” when he was picked for the TLC series “Trading Spaces,” will run a one-mile race with kids of all ages along the route before the start of the parade. Carter and his wife, Amy Smart, have started a non-profit group called Carter’s Kids to promote fitness and increase self-esteem among American youngsters. (Two summers back, they led the effort to create a children’s playground near the Elmwood Township marina.)

About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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