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Offbeat Oregon History

Iconic food items invented in Oregon

By Finn J.D. John

At the time of this writing, the Christmas shopping season is just starting to spool up, and folks are getting ready for some serious holiday eating.

Most likely, that festive feasting won’t include many of the things on this list. Although inventors from the Beaver State have had a big impact at the grocery store, most of what they’ve created would be a bit out of place at a Christmas dinner.

The big exceptions are the products created by scientists at Oregon State University: Marionberries for pie, and modern-process Maraschino cherries for holiday punchbowls. So, let’s start with those.

The Modern Maraschino Cherry (1929)

Maraschino cherries originally came from Italy, where a particularly nasty variety of wild cherry called a “marasca” grows. Marascas, fresh from the tree, are sour and bitter, but the locals over the years figured out that they could be made into a particularly scrumptious kind of liqueur. Even better, when whole Marasca cherries were pickled in that liqueur, they became delicious.

The cherries caught on with high-society drinkers, who loved them in cocktails. The problem was, like a lot of wild fruits, marascas aren’t prolific. So the cherries were very expensive. Various other cherries were tried, both for the fruit and the liqueur, and some non-alcoholic formulas were developed as well. Most of these faux-aschinos were pretty bad. Writer Inara Verzemnieks found several articles from early-1900s newspapers complaining about their quality.

Then along came Prohibition, and with it, the original Italian ones became unobtainable.

Meanwhile, cherry growers in Oregon were trying to figure out how to get into the market with a proper non-alcoholic Maraschino cherry made with a safe, reliable industrial process. The climate in the Willamette Valley is nearly perfect for growing cherries, but the ones that grow best there are big, sweet, juicy ones that break down into mush and turn unappetizing colors when pickled or preserved.

One particularly disgruntled cherry grower happened to be a brother-in-law of William Jasper Kerr, the president of Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University). The college had just hired a hotshot horticulture professor named Ernest Wiegand a few years earlier; so Kerr put the problem before him.

Wiegand spent the second half of the 1920s working on it, trying various formulas to get the cherries right. In the end, he figured out that certain calcium salts would firm the cherries up. One of Wiegand’s colleagues, Bob Cain, developed a technique for safely bleaching the cherries so that they would end up ghost-white, ready to be dyed with food coloring (or, in the case of more recent offerings, extracts of beetroots and other natural colorants).

With these twin breakthroughs, Oregon became the dominant player in Maraschino cherry production worldwide.

The Marionberry (1956):

The Marion cultivar of blackberries has been the most widely planted blackberry in the U.S. since the early 1980s, and for anyone looking forward to some home-baked pie after Christmas dinner, Marionberries just might be involved.

Blackberries, as most Oregonians know all too well, are a sort of fruit that combines some of the worst qualities of a plant with some of the best. Few fruits are anywhere near as delicious as a ripe, juicy blackberry; but the vines tend to be sprawling and disorderly and covered with great spiky murder-thorns. At their worst, they grow astonishingly quickly, are very hard to eradicate, and shade out everything below them. The common invasive Himalayan blackberries that grow all over the state are the best examples of this type.

In the mid-1930s when OSU professor George Waldo set out to breed what would become the Marionberry, there was almost a direct connection between the quality of the fruit and the density and awfulness of the brambles it grew on. One could find blackberry varieties that were well-behaved and almost thornless, but the fruits were small and not very juicy. Or one could find the nearest tangle of wild Himalayan blackberries and find the opposite.

Waldo set out to breed the perfect blackberry: one with delicious fruit AND well-behaved vines. He spent about two full decades on this quest, starting in 1935 when he cooked up a cultivar called Santiam by crossing Loganberries with Pacific Blackberries (the tiny ones frequently found on forest floors, with long not-very-spiny vines and few leaves). Then, in 1936, he crossed Santiam with the infamous and ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry to get a variety he called Chehalem.

Chehalem berries were tasty, but the vines they grew on were a little too reminiscent of their disorderly, horrible Himalayan parent. So Waldo made one more cross, breeding Chehalem berries with Olallieberries. (Olallie was another hybrid that Waldo had created the previous year by crossing two older traditional varieties: Youngberries and Black Loganberries).

The result was the Marion blackberry: A fast-growing but well-behaved vine, with thorns that were not overly vicious and fruits that practically melt in your mouth. Its main “bug” is a “feature” for home growers and Farmer’s Market customers – the berry skins are so tender that they don’t take rough handling very well, so mechanical harvesting is tricky. They also are very sensitive to cold, so the only place they grow well is the Willamette Valley. Most marionberries are still grown right in Marion County, the county where they were tested and named after.

(Sources: “The Fruit that Made Oregon Famous,” an article by Inara Verzemnieks published in the April 16, 2007, issue of the Portland Oregonian; “The Tater Tot is American Ingenuity at its Finest,” an article by Kelsey McKinney published in the Aug. 28, 2017, issue of Eater magazine; “How Two Oregon Brothers’ Efforts to Mitigate Food Waste Created the Tater Tot,” an article by Heather Arndt Anderson published by Oregon Public Broadcasting on Feb. 2, 2022; “A Classic American Concession was First Fried in Oregon,” an article by Meagan Cuthill published by Oregon Public Broadcasting on July 16, 2022)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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