Food  |  Health  |  News & Politics

Would Eating Cherries From the 1700s Hurt My Tummy? An Investigation.

The very old fruit was recently found at Mount Vernon. Yum?

Preserved cherries found at Mount Vernon. Photograph courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).

George Washington’s Mount Vernon announced Thursday that 29 undamaged bottles filled with cherries and berries from the 1700s were discovered beneath the home. The fruit is “perfectly preserved,” and the compulsion was immediate: I must eat those cherries.

The magical elixir. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).
The magical elixir. Photograph courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).

There’s no telling why this dusty fruit has captured my stomach’s imagination. According to Mount Vernon, we’re probably working with a sour type of cherry here, and I find myself fantasizing about how they’ve been sweetened by time, mellowing into a syrupy spoonful similar to an Amarena cherry. However, my 21st-century gut, more acclimated to Costco hot dogs than 250-year-old preserves, is already not known for its fortitude. I’m pretty sure some Revolutionary-era cherries would kick off a revolution of their own. (Though perhaps if stirred into a cocktail, the alcohol could act as a sanitizer…)

To be clear, no one is offering me the opportunity to eat the cherries. But could I? To be absolutely, unequivocally, 100 percent sure the cherries are definitely off-limits, we asked a local gastroenterologist what would happen if I were to get my paws on the forbidden fruit.

Make it a double! Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).
Make it a double! Photograph courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).

The risk is really dependent on whether those bottles are, in fact, perfectly preserved, though time itself should be enough to put someone off the fruit. According to the doctor—who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized by his employer to discuss the perils of old produce—the effects of eating the cherries could range from mild to significant, depending on if any air entered the vessels over the past two centuries. Sugar from broken-down cherries could possibly produce a reaction similar to IBS: gas, bloating, and loose stools. But if bacteria has been able to infiltrate it, consuming the fruit could lead to some very serious illnesses. “Some fool might be willing to try them, but I don’t think I would,” says the doctor. “I don’t even want to eat raw seafood anymore.”

Lily Carhart, Mount Vernon’s curator of preservation collections, also doesn’t recommend sampling the cherries. “Remember, these bottles have been in the ground for 250 years and exposed to additional unknown microbiological elements, so consuming the fruit would be highly inadvisable,” says Carhart. “And a closer look at the unappetizing contents would likely discourage anyone from the temptation of trying!”

Meanwhile, Mount Vernon has plans for the fruit that don’t involve gastrointestinal distress: The next step is pit analysis, which will determine whether the seeds can be planted and grown. If so, maybe it someday it will be possible to safely enjoy these cherries’ offspring.

Fine, I guess I won't eat the cherries. Photo courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).
Fine, I guess I won’t eat the cherries. Photograph courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA).

Daniella Byck
Lifestyle Editor

Daniella Byck joined Washingtonian in 2022. She was previously with Outside Magazine and lives in Northeast DC.