"When George was about 6 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 . . . he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree. Confronted by his father the next day, the young lad bravely confessed, "I can't tell a lie, Pa, I did cut it with my hatchet.' "
So wrote one Mason Locke Weems, George Washington's first biographer, in 1800. Historical accuracy aside, thanks to Weems, America's first president will always be associated with cherries.
Cherries were popular in colonial times. They were used to make a beverage called ratafia -- sipped by diplomats to toast the ratification of treaties. Today, the United States grows more of these tiny fruits than any other country in the world. Much of the crop comes from Washington state, Oregon and California, but the cherry capital is Traverse City, Mich., on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
"Our cool climate is ideal for growing cherries," explains Dr. Charles Kesner, director of the Horticultural Research Center for the University of Michigan. "The weather warms very slowly, which produces a firmer, sturdier cherry."
According to Dr. Kesner, there two basic types of cherries: sweet and tart. The former contain up to 20 percent sugar and are popular for eating. Tart cherries contain about 15 percent sugar and are generally used for cooking.
Sweet cherries include the large, sweet, maroon Bing cherry; the elongated Lambert, and the Royal Anne (also known as the Napoleon), a golden-skinned cherry with a red blush on one cheek. (The latter are the preferred fruit for making maraschino cherries.)
Tart cherries include the tart, red Montmorency cherry (which is native to France) and the Morella, a small cherry with clear, pleasantly tart juice. Tart cherries are used primarily for pies, jams, jellies, and canning.
In the 1970s, Michigan growers began experimenting with dried cherries. Business is booming at the Graceland Fruit Co. in Frankfort, Mich., where grower Don Nugent transforms tart Montmorency cherries into tidbits that make a wonderful substitute for raisins. "We don't use sulfur in our dried cherries, so you can use them in salads, stuffings, breakfast cereals, wild rice -- any dish in which you'd use raisins," says Mr. Nugent. Michigan dried cherries can be ordered by mail from American Spoon Foods. (A one-pound package costs $9.50, plus $5 for shipping and handling. Phone  222-5886.)
Cherries are a highly seasonal fruit: They appear at the beginning of June and are gone by mid-August.
Tart cherries are best for cooking, but sweet cherries can be used if you add lemon juice and reduce the amount of sugar called for in a recipe. A cherry pitter looks like a manual hole punch, and can be purchased at housewares departments and shops. Put the whole cherries in one end of the box-shaped device and pump the handle up and down: The pitted cherries emerge from the other side.
One pound of stemmed, unpitted cherries makes three cups. It takes 3 to 4 pounds of whole cherries to make 1 quart of stemmed, pitted fruit. Cherries can be preserved in a simple syrup (made by boiling 1- 1/2 cups sugar with 2 cups water).
Split, stemmed, pitted cherries can be dried in a low oven (130 degrees for 12 hours): Raisins never tasted so good!
Tart cherry soup
2 pounds fresh sour cherries
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 large cinnamon stick
10 cloves and 10 allspice berries, wrapped in cheesecloth
2 strips of lemon zest
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon arrowroot
1/2 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup dry red wine
Pit the cherries over a bowl, saving any juices. Combine the cherry juice with enough water to make 3 cups liquid and place in a saucepan with sugar and spices. Bring to a boil and add the cherries. Reduce the heat and simmer 8-10 minutes, or until the cherries are tender. Remove the cinnamon stick, spice bag and lemon peel.
Dissolve the arrowroot in 2 tablespoons cream, and stir this paste into the simmering cherries. Boil for 30 seconds. Stir in the cream and wine. Chill the soup to room temperature, then refrigerate till cold. The recipe can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead to this stage.
Serve Hungarian tart cherry soup in chilled glass bowls. If you like, garnish each bowl with rosettes of whipped cream or sour cream.
This next dish makes a refreshing change from the traditional duckling with orange. The duck can be roasted ahead of time and reheated.
` Roast duckling with cherries
2 4-5 pound ducklings (fresh if possible)
Salt and fresh black pepper
2 cinnamon sticks
FOR THE SAUCE:
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup port wine
1/4 cup white sugar
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 pound cherries pitted
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
The juice of 1 lemon and 1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons kirsch
Pinch of cayenne pepper