The Pits

Reader Z wants to know why I’m using almond extract in my cherry pie instead of something like vanilla. Isn’t that a little “Euro” for an American pie? Well Z, if that IS your real name, that may be. However almond extract is a natural addition to a cherry pie filling. The flavor of almond is already present in cherries, you see. So a touch of almond extract, far from being a contrast, simply serves to emphasize a flavor that’s already there.

A cherry is a drupe, a member of a family of fruits that contain only one large, stony pit. And the pits of drupes — specifically those of the genus prunus — all taste like almonds. Almonds themselves are actually drupe pits, if you can believe it, not true nuts. They aren’t even the most “almond” tasting of all drupe pits. That distinction goes to the apricot pit, which is why it’s used to make the almond liqueur Amaretto.

An interesting fact about prunus drupe pits is that they contain a chemical known as amygdalin, a member of a family of compounds known as cyanogenetic glucosides. As the name implies, cyanogenetic glucosides are sugars but with an important difference: they have molecules of cyanide attached to them. Eat them and the body’s digestive enzymes go to work breaking them down into their component sugars…plus a little hydrogen cyanide.

Fortunately a typical drupe pit doesn’t have enough amygdalin to hurt you, and that’s assuming one did happen to crack open in your mouth somehow. For as anyone who’s ever cracked a tooth or a piece of dental work on a cherry pit knows, those things are tough. Swallow one and they pass right through you, completely unharmed.

But where was I? Oh, yes, poison. I’d be remiss in this discussion of cyanide if I didn’t make at least a passing reference to Sherlock Holmes, who could always tell a cyanide poisoning by the almond-y scent of the corpse. “Bitter almonds. The telltale sign of death by cyanide. Elementary, Dr. Watson.”

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