An early nineteenth century American book peddler, itinerant preacher and author, "Parson" Mason Locke Weems is best known today as the source of some of the most beloved if apocryphal stories about George Washington. The famous story of George and the Cherry Tree is included in Weems' masterpiece, The Life and Memorable Actions of Washington, which was originally published in 1800 (the year after Washington's death) and was an immediate best-seller.
in ever more inventive editions over the next 25 years, it contains,
according to Edward
Lengel, "some of the most beloved lies of American history, including the
cherry tree myth" and other exaggerated or invented anecdotes that
extolled Washington’s virtues and provided an entertaining and morally
instructive tale for the young republic.
telling his cherry tree story, Weems attributed it to "an aged lady,” who was
reportedly a distant relative of George, and who, as a young girl, supposedly
spent much time with him. This is how the fable unfolded:
George was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a
hatchet of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was
constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the
garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he
unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English
cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got
the better of it.
The next morning, [George’s father], finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by
the by, was a great favorite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked
for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have
taken five guineas for his tree.
Nobody could tell him anything about
it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. "George," said his
father, "do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the
garden?" This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment;
but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of
youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he
bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did
cut it with my hatchet."
“Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” cried his
father in transports, “run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my
tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my
son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and
their fruits of purest gold.”
plausible enough, historians generally agree that this quaint story is almost
certainly not true. What is true, however, is that George was particularly fond
of cherries, and Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery contains several family “receipts” for
preserving this sweet and tangy highly versatile fruit.
course, then, as today, sweet and sour cherries can be used in all kinds of
pies, tarts, jellies, jams, breads, muffins, and soups, as well as in a
fabulously wide array of cobblers, like this recipe for cherry cobbler, which
George surely would have loved had he had time to try it during his
extraordinarily illustrious life:
1/4 cups flour
tablespoons yellow cornmeal
tablespoons butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
large egg yolk
tablespoons cold milk, cream or water
cups cherry preserves
cup sliced almonds
sugar, for dusting
the workbowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, cornmeal and salt.
Pulse to combine. Add the butter, toss carefully with your hands to coat the
butter cubes in flour. Pulse in the food processor several times until the
mixture resembles coarse oatmeal. Add the egg and 2 tablespoons of milk, cream
or water, and pulse until the dough begins to come together in a ball. Add the
additional tablespoon of liquid if needed until the dough comes together.
the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead it briefly to shape it
into a disk about 5 inches across. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1
hour or overnight. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a
shape a ½ inch wider than the tart pan you are using. Loosely fold the dough in
half and transfer it to the tart pan.
the pan with the dough, being. Trim any excess
dough from the rim of the pan, leaving a blunt neat edge. Gather the trimmings
into a ball (it should be about the size of a pingpong ball). Wrap the tart and
the ball of dough in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.
to 375 degrees. Remove tart pan from refrigerator and spread the
marmalade evenly over the crust. Grate the chilled ball of pastry onto the
filling, and sprinkle the almonds over the top. Bake until the pastry is golden, the filling is bubbly and the almonds are
toasted, 40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. When the tart is
completely cool, dust with confectioners' sugar. Serve at room temperature.