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Nov 10 2013

The cherry dream

cherry

It all started with the wine last night — a dark red, with cherry and chocolate notes. The chocolate I can take or leave, but cherry…cherry is my flavor, and it reacted with the phlegmy mass building up in my sinuses to leach cherry dreams into my brain. This damned cold made my sleep fitful, as well, so unlike my usual nights, when I sleep deeply and blissfully so my dreams all dissipate before they pass into my awareness, I drifted shallowly in the Lethe, my head bobbing above the surface, and I remembered all, a rare experience.

Weird thing, most of the dreams I remember have salmon in them, as does this one. But it’s not got much salmon. It’s mostly about the cherry trees. OK, maybe a fair amount of salmon.

When I was young, I lived in the Green River Valley, which was appropriately named. There was the valley floor, which ran mostly north-south and was flat and rich-soiled and mostly used for agriculture, and there were the valley walls which rose abruptly and steeply to either side. I was a rambling boy, and I would hike all over back roads and through farmers’ fields and into little patches of wildness, and the Green River was a constant feature — it twisted and looped through the valley, and on any good stroll you’d be crossing it multiple times.

The Green was a beautiful river, deep and slow, and a good contemplative river. I was often content just to stand on its banks or a bridge and watch the mysteries of its surface, the eddies that roiled it and drifted downstream to disappear, the strange pockets and bulges that would appear on the gray-green surface and wander about. On the edges you’d find small fish darting about, and crayfish, and hellgrammites, and wicked little dragonfly larvae, and water striders and water boatmen. In deeper water, the steelhead lurked with their unwelcome cousins, the suckerfish. It was a fine river to savor.

The farmers’ fields weren’t as uniform as you might think, either. This was the Pacific Northwest, so it rained and it was wet, and every field was dappled with small ponds that might dry up in July or August, but most of the time were filled with shallow water, just enough to dissuade the farmers’ plows. So there’d be a field of corn or lettuce or cauliflower and in its center, a decades old depression that had never been harrowed or cut, hallowed by an attending ring of trees and brush and blackberry brambles (always the blackberries, which would rise up on any neglected patch). The ponds were a haven for cattails and ducks.

There were also feeble little streams trickling towards the river — they were tiny, maybe a few inches wide, but frequent. They were wetter than you’d think for their dimensions, though: they would be surrounded by mud flats a dozen or twenty feet wide, a glistening surface speckled with skunk cabbage and pitcher plants and other odd fleshy members of the vegetable kingdom, overshadowed with gloom by all the trees rising up around them. You did not walk there unless you wanted to risk losing a boot to the sucking mud.

Another bane of the farmers, I’m sure, were infrequent eruptions of boulders. This valley had been carved by glaciers and the erosion of the river, but it’s flat surface had also been built up by mud flows from the volcanoes of the Cascades, and in a few places you’d find rocky outcrops that again, refused the plow. These were drier, with a different flora: the ubiquitous blackberries, of course, but also tangled nets of deadly nightshade and morning glories. I’d poke around the edges, but they were impenetrable.

But I’m just setting the stage. I dreamed about the cherry orchard.

In early to mid-summer, I’d often set course south on my rambles. I’d walk out of town, cross the Green River (of course, and perhaps stopping for a while to watch it placidly muscle its way downstream to the Sound), and walk along a narrow country road that paralleled the river on my left. There was never any traffic. It was always quiet. I’d pass a sleepy junkyard, its intimidatingly high fences softened by the vines growing over it and pulling it down. I’d walk past interminable borders of blackberries.

Then, a break in the brambles to the right, and a rutted gravel road leading under a railroad trestle. The trestle was old and dark and tarred, reeking of creosote, like a gateway into an industrial hell, but once you got past it, the road splayed out into the neglected cherry orchard. It was a strange place: all the trees were laid out in precise rows and ranks, abandoned soldiers standing at attention with arms reaching up to the sky. Because I’d often go there at twilight, I picture it now with a dark gray sky and pitch black trees.

But the orderliness was a relic. The tree branches were untended and had grown together in a matted tangle. Underfoot, the grass had grown high, but then twisted and curled into rabbit warrens. Rabbits would dart away as I walked through their grassy shanty town; I’d see deer wandering through the aisles of trees; once as I walked in I met a skunk walking out, and we made wary half circles around each other and succeeded in letting each other be.

Oh, and there were cherries.

I could reach up and just touch frequent bunches of them. In the dusk, they were all blackish-red, a dark devil’s fruit, and I’d palp them gently to find the ones that were ripe, and pluck them one at a time. There was no hurry, they were plentiful. I’d put one in my mouth and just roll it around, round and firm and so smooth, and then when I’d bite into it, that rush of flavor and the tart sweet syrupy juice and pulp. It was a sensual and sensuous experience.

A few years later, when I first really kissed a girl, I was startled to think of those cherries: firm, muscular, smooth, slick. Overriding all my confused surprise and “whoa, that was nice” messages in my head, cherries echoed. If I’d been a Christian, it would have been a revelation that the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was without a doubt a dark gnarled cherry tree, and that the fruit Satan encouraged Eve to pluck was small and cherry red and firm fleshed and juicy, and that the first bite would have been followed by very many other sins of the flesh. Wait, not sins: joys.

Mmmm, cherries.

In my cherry travels, I’d stroll through the orchard, sampling the delights, until I reached the far side, usually as it was getting dark, and I’d have to cross a few fences and grassy fields to reach a road running north, and I’d walk home, inevitably crossing the Green again.

But this was not just a lusty dream of the sensuous nature of the feral cherry. I remembered what happened to the orchard.

Developers.

In those years, the small towns south of Seattle saw the behemoth slowly sending pseudopods up the river, and they saw an opportunity to grow rich. Over and over, I saw it: first, the signs would appear on the highway side of the fields: “Zoned Light Industrial”, “Zoned Commercial”. They were the first speckles of the disease.

Then would appear the concrete culverts and ditches and pipes. Good drainage in this country was good money. Familiar ponds and creeks would disappear, replaced by sheets of dried crazed cracked mud, the skunk cabbage turned to blackish stains, the dragonflies fled.

Then the bulldozers. Trees were shattered, brush cast into piles, the ground leveled and smoothed. Forms were pegged out on the ground, and concrete poured, then hoisted to make gray-walled boxes, roofed with sheet metal. They were dreary tombs that steadily replaced the living land. Landscaping was a matter of placing a rectangular patch of dirt and filling it with lawn…or often, low maintenance sheets of decorative white gravel. The interiors of these boxes smelled all the same, of carpet glue and dust, or perhaps embalming fluid and death; they were all lit with banks of fluorescent rods suspended from the bare metal trellis supporting the roof. The sounds you’d hear would be the whine of electric forklifts rolling about between racks of shelves, with perhaps some tinny, echoing country western ballad playing on someone’s transistor radio.

This was the end. This was to be the fate of the orchard. When my father heard of this, he had a plan.

One evening, we drove to the orchard, the station wagon loaded with tools. We pulled into the rutted gravel road, stopped at the edge, and saw the instruments of doom to the side: a yellow bulldozer, a woodchipper, rows of trees reduced to stumps by chainsaws, trunks stacked like dead bodies in piles. We went to work with bow saws and long handled pruning shears, and we scavenged.

We gathered twigs. We cut wrist-thick branches into chunks. We harvested the discarded limbs of the trees, we scooped up the larger chips of cherry wood left by the machines. We worked into the dark beneath the light of the moon. We packed that car to the roof with the broken fragments of the orchard.

Little known fact, but my father was a wizard and an alchemist. He had a plan for a transformation — a plan that he would work on diligently for years.

Over time, he would fish and gather steelhead from the Green River — big muscular red-fleshed fish that he would expertly fillet into great slabs of meat. He would then chill water and use his alchemical arts to saturate it with salt and brown sugar and molasses, making a thick brown brine that we’d immerse the red meat in, darkening it, filling it with sweetness and saltiness. The fillets would soak for days.

Then, the magic: the smokehouse. This is where the cherry orchard was resurrected and transformed. The broken bits and pieces of cherry wood would smolder in the closed environment of the smokehouse for days, slowly cooking the salmon and infusing it with cherriness. Our yard would smell of smoke and cherries as the meat was slowly infused with the essence of the orchard, and the sugars caramelized and the flavors matured.

The end result? dark slabs of meat with rich complexity of taste, and threading through it all, a sweet hint of cherry. The orchard transmuted by my father’s art! I would eat it with bare hands, tearing off a hunk of flaky meat, and savor it slowly, enjoying every morsel of flavor. This was the heart of my dream, that memory of fish and salt and cherry. For years I did this, consuming the orchard in this new way.

I only realized later that my father’s magic could not have been limited to transforming trees into fish. The other part of his trick was transforming fish into boy. I was being suffused with the essence of my home, and I suspect that even now, if you could taste me, there’d be subtle undertones of river and pond, rain and alga-rich mud, salmon and smoke, and just the lightest note of cherry.

We all taste of place. I hope we’re all delicious.

35 comments

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  1. 1
    redwood

    Beautiful, PZ. Nothing beats growing up in the country, especially around rivers. Mine was the Gasconade in the Missouri Ozarks, one of the few north-flowing rivers around. What a different world it was back then when we kids were able to walk or ride bikes anywhere. I was also a rambler, mainly over the 50 acres we owned, 15 of fields and 25 of woods with two big ponds, a dry creek, and countless critters to observe. Thank you for stirring up some great memories.

  2. 2
    Trebuchet

    PZ, that was awesome! You gave me goosebumps!

    In the early 1970′s, I worked at the northern end of the valley. Most of it, other than the Boeing Space Center, was still agricultural. I would travel through it often on my way to visit my parents in Tacoma. I was unhappy with the development even then. Now…it’s just a mess, especially to the north. Farther south there’s still some agriculture, but it’s not the place it was.

    One of these days Mt. Ranier will erupt and perhaps cover it with several feet of steaming mud. That might not be an altogether bad thing.

  3. 3
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    PZ, that was lovely.

  4. 4
    magistramarla

    PZ, that was beautifully written. You should seek to have it published as a short story.
    Unfortunately, I fear that I wouldn’t be delicious.
    I grew up next to the Mississippi, in a highly industrialized area. Around my house, there was the Amoco Oil refinery, the Sinclair (later Clark) refinery, the Shell Oil refinery, the Chemetco chemical group, the Alton Glassworks, the Olin ammunition manufacturer and probably a few others that I don’t remember.
    Our water often tasted like chemicals had seeped in and the air was constantly thick with smoke.
    When I was commuting to college over twenty five miles away, I would arrive and kiss my boyfriend (now hubby) and he would complain that he could smell the factories on my breath.
    I often wonder if that pollution that was infused into my body is the reason that I’m now disabled with autoimmune issues that closely resemble the issues that my mother and other relatives had.

  5. 5
    redwood

    Um, let’s try 40 acres. And I bet I taste of home-churned butter from our milk cow and blackberry cobbler that my mom made.

  6. 6
    Duth Olec

    So then, were they… cherry salmon?
    Hey, someone had to say it.

  7. 7
    Anne, Old Gumbie Cat

    That is a beautiful picture, painted in wonderful words. Thank you, PZ, you made me smile.

  8. 8
    Scientismist

    That was beautiful, and especially so because it echoed my own childhood, and the values of my own parents.

    My childhood memories are of the creeks and country roads of Columbia County in that peninsula of Oregon north of Portland. And blackberries — lots of blackberries that I brought home for my Mom to bake into pies. And salmon from the Columbia River, smoked in an old refrigerator my Dad converted to a smokehouse, and then Mom canned in glass jars. The cherry wood came from the trimmings from the three varieties of cherry trees that grew on our own one acre.

    I was three when, after the end of the war, my parents had the choice of settling in a Portland suburb, or my Dad taking a 30-mile commute every day. Dad thought country-grown kids were worth the effort. It also led to a series of little used commuter cars, and the opportunity to help my Dad work on the engines.

    Thank you, P.Z.; and thanks, Mom and Dad.

  9. 9
    Scientismist

    BTW — those cars I mentioned in #8 were little, but heavily used.

    magistramarla #4: The Columbia, too, had its industry. The paper mill sent out rafts of chemical foam that floated along the edges of the river and the mouths of the streams and sloughs where we kids were trying to fish. So my Dad refurbished an old rowboat, and we the whole family picked beans to pay for an outboard, and we went fishing on the main river. A coke and gas plant closer to Portland spewed the most ghastly yellow sulfurous smoke, constantly. I visited the hometown a couple of years ago. The house I grew up in is gone, the road widened and took half of the acre; the remainder is too close to the creek to develop, so it has gone wild, with blackberries joining what remains of the Concord grapes in the ruins of the old arbor. The coke plant is gone, the air is cleaner, and the paper plant no longer pollutes the river — at least not so blatantly. Some things get worse, but some get better.

  10. 10
    Inaji

    I’d taste of orange groves, dark, rich soil, wood, leaves, fruit, sharp spicy blossoms, heady Eucalyptus entwined in cold mist, sun baked sand, salt, and ocean.

    SoCal was a very different place when I was a sprog.

  11. 11
    Gregory in Seattle

    A wonderful reflection of childhood? No rant about crackers or creationists or conservative screwballs?

    Dr. Myers, methinks the cold medicine is getting to you.

  12. 12
    ChasCPeterson

    nice piece; thanks

  13. 13
    yazikus

    Thank you so much for sharing. What a pleasant way to drink my coffee and wake up this morning!

  14. 14
    yazikus

    Thinking on rivers- I’ve always been one who likes to live near ‘a water’, whether it be a river, lake or sea. I’ve lived on the Potomac, the Baltic Sea, the Deschutes, the Platte, random North Dakota ponds, and now the Columbia (which whenever I make that turn and come upon it I say with reverence, “The Mighty Columbia”). There is something so peaceful and inevitable about bodies of water.
    -
    This also sort of reminded me of the documentary about the artist Andy Goldsworthy called Rivers and Tides, which was awesome.

  15. 15
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    My memory?
    Grandma’s apple pockets.
    When fall came and the plums and apples turned ripe my grandma would make plum-pie. My grandma wouldn’t make one plum-pie, she’d make lots of them. The first one would be eaten fresh alongside a fresh bean soup (yes, sometimes eating traditions here are weird) with veggies from the garden. Another one or two would be sent to her sisters and their families.
    And the rest would be frozen.
    But even though her plum-pie was great, I was looking forward to something else. For all these pies, grandma made an enormous amount of yeast-dough*. And at one point there would be too little dough or plums for another pie and that was the moment for apple pockets.
    She’d just roll out the dough, cut it in squares, add half of one of the small apples, some raisins, sugar and cinamon and fold the dough on top of it.
    There are no better apple pockets in this world for me.
    Not only because they are objectively the best ones in the world, but also because they taste of autumn, long days in grandma’s magic kitchen and childhood.

    *Grandma didn’t do recipes for such basic things. I once asked her for her cheesecake recipe. She said: “You take flour” How much flour? “Enough”

  16. 16
    joques

    Great job, PZ. As it happens, right at the moment I am reading this, I am sanitizing kegs to receive my first attempt at a cherry beer. Not a lambic or kriek, not soured through years of bacterial fermentation, just a modest pale beer into which I dumped an additional 30 % of cherries. The sugars from the cherries has now fermented away, and the result is surprisingly, bracingly, tart, just from the acids of the cherries themselves. I would like to send you a bottle or two as scant repayment for the fantastic amount of work you do for our common good, but I’m unsure how to go about it. If it sounds enticing, I guess PM me.

  17. 17
    unclefrogy

    one of the remarkable things about where I got to grow out of childhood was the largish storm-drain that lived the other side of our back fence. I grew up in southern L.A. in Compton. Southern California south of down town L.A. would have been vernal marshes all the way to central Orange county so there are many storm drains all through the area which most of the year look like strange abstract landscapes by Dali with a little water down the center when it rains it looks not unlike the Muddy Colorado surging to the sea. all through them all under bridges around bridge supports, in weep holes along the bottom edges are little bits of holdouts and pioneers waiting for the inevitable collapse, weeds and cattails and sedges, grasses even young trees some native and some escapees from the garden, insects and frogs even and crawdads and where ever the water is slow enough blue green algae
    About 5 years after they built the one behind us the weep holes were discovered by burrowing owls

    thanks for stimulating these memories.
    uncle frogy

  18. 18
    carlie

    magistramarla, I grew up less than 20 miles from you! I don’t like to openly write where (trying to keep some semblance of anonymity), but the smell of my childhood is the acrid, thick smog of the steel mills; in its heyday, we had three. The part of town where my grandmother lived and where we went to church, though, had a tea processing plant, and that smell I loved – imagine the scent rising from a fresh mug of black tea right in front of you, and expand that to the air all around. That might be part of why I’ve always so preferred tea to coffee.

    PZ, you write beautifully. It makes me ache to have the kind of experiences you write about.

  19. 19
    Rob

    No-one ever grows up in Arcadia, but that post almost made me believe it was possible for a moment. As did Cain’s @10.

    It’s nice to think we can carry a small piece of perfection with us and share it with others. Thanks.

  20. 20
    Randomfactor

    Beautiful.

    Perhaps he set you on the path of skeptical thought by presenting you with the Salmon of Doubt.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Salmon_of_Doubt

  21. 21
    Hekuni Cat, MQG

    Beautiful. Thank you, PZ.

  22. 22
    AtheistPilgrim

    Delightfully written and most enjoyable reminiscences. Thank you P Zed.

    I grew up in Sydney during the 40′s and 50′s, not far from the city and close to the Parramatta River which flows into Sydney Harbour. In the 40′s, local councils used the tidal flats of the Parramatta River as dumps for household refuse collections, actions barely imaginable these days. I had almost as much fun scouring the dumped rubbish (where I once found a “fortune” of burnt silver coins worth about $50 today) as I had prowling the banks of the river. My mate and I would occasionally catch large crabs which we wheeled home on our bikes. They were too big for our biggest cooking pot, so Mum would cook them in the “copper”, which was normally used for boiling the washing, many years prior to the availability of washing machines.

    See, now I am getting all reminisciny myself! It’s a nice feeling. Thanks again.

  23. 23
    magistramarla

    Hey there Carlie,
    It’s always nice to find someone else from the old home area.
    I remember GC steel, so I think that I know where you are talking about.
    I don’t remember a tea plant, but I didn’t get to that area often.
    Do you remember the Cahokia Mounds? The legend of the Piasa Bird?
    Those were the stories that got me interested in archaeology and ancient civilizations.
    I suppose that’s why I became a Latin teacher.
    I haven’t been back there for a long, long time. I think that things have changed quite a lot.

  24. 24
    carlie

    magistramarla – yep! My claim to fame is that on a 6th grade field trip, I rolled down Monk’s Mound. My classmates were taking a back dirt path down the side rather than the steps, which we were most definitely not supposed to do, and being that I was trying to fit in, I did too. Only about halfway down I tripped and fell, and since it was steep started rolling head over heels, and couldn’t figure out how to stop myself. Went alllll the way down. :D I ended up at the bottom, somewhat dazed, about 30 feet from all of the teachers standing around talking, who didn’t even notice. I keep thinking that it was probably only a few feet but seemed like much more in my mind, except that as soon as my mom saw me when we got back she was horrified because I had pricks and scratches all over my face. That’s one of the few memories of childhood I still have clearly.

    I go back once every year or two for family – the place hasn’t aged well. Once the industries moved out it never quite recovered.

  25. 25
    anuran

    Get this book. My wife has a terrible cherry Jones. She has bought two pounds of Bings at an orchard in Yakima and have finished them by the time she reaches Gresham. When I make Susie Bright’s Eternal Cherry Devotion Pie it satisfies the craving for almost a year. The combination of the flavor of Bings and the texture of Rainiers with the subtle seasoning and minimal sugar tastes more like cherries than cherries themselves.

  26. 26
    John Pieret

    Evil, spittle-flecked, Xnian bashing, hateful atheists aren’t supposed to be able to write prose poetry!

    You must have reformed! ;-)

  27. 27
    naturalist

    Wow … that was great. I grew up north of Seattle, catching steelhead and salmon and collecting apples from abandoned orchards that have long since become housing developments and soccer fields. After 25 years on the east coast for graduate school, a post-doc, and a faculty position, I’m back. Although much has changed, the mountains and rivers are still beautiful and the salmon, though not as plentiful as before, still come back. In fact, my new campus has a stream running through it with sockeye salmon spawning in it as I write this. As wistful as I am about the PNW of my youth, much of what I loved is still here.

  28. 28
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    Beautifully written PZ, you’ve succeeded in making me jealous of your upbringing. I’m hardly an urbanite, I spent almost all of my childhood in the local woods making dens, climbing trees, having mock sword fights and making bows and arrows; but yours sounds decidedly more rural and pleasant. You’ve also renewed my ambition to have a smokehouse one day :)

    So a steelhead is a salmon? I thought it was a rainbow trout. Specifically, a rainbow trout just retrurned from the sea.

  29. 29
    rq

    Thanks for the memory, PZ.
    For me, it was half-wild apples growing in the forest, leftover orchards from the homes that used to be there – a few places, we could even find the old foundations of houses and cow barns. Interspersed with old mica quarries, basically deep holes filled with water that looked deep and dark and mysterious, with complementary pile of rocks (quartz, granite, some larger pieces of mica) for geological explorations.
    It was all overgrown forest in my time, though. And now it’s development houses again, with nary an old orchard in sight… But the variety of apples! We even knew where to go for which kinds of apples – yellow, green, sweet, sour, all amazing for jellies and pies. But the best ones were this one small bright, bright red variety that was so red on the outside, it leaked through pink on the inside. Tasted like strawberries, but better. Knew those trails in all seasons, light or dark, skiing or walking or biking.
    The worst part is, the whole area was designated wildlife preservation area – nothing official, just enough to let it grow. And then it got rezoned, and they rezoned again and again, leaving the undevelopable swamp as ‘wildlife preservation’ (wetlands are important, I agree, but the forest was an important part of Canadian Shield ecosystem with many distinct indigenous species of its own, never mind the animal migration corridor it was…). Cutting all the trees down. Sad.

  30. 30
  31. 31
    Numenaster

    @Scientismist, you must have grown up near my in-laws. You probably actually know where Yankton School is, even :) Mrs. Numenaster finished elementary school there after moving in from Tacoma in the 70′s. She used to tell me the stories of all the people after whom the roads were named, and how Bachelor Flat Road by the fairgrounds got its name. I wish I remembered that story now.

    She tasted of the elk that we helped her dad butcher & wrap every fall, and lima beans & ham that her mom learned to cook for her Missouri-born dad and that I learned to cook for her, and of the blackberries that grew everywhere just as PZ described, and the blacker-than-black coffee she drank just one cup of every morning. And here I sit with my cup of sweet pale coffee, missing that sludge she used to drink with such relish. She died in 2009 and so many memories and stories went with her, but I retained a few.

    I see a lesser version of the development in PZ’s story happening in St. Helens now, but Portland has managed to keep a fair amount of its redevelopment & densification within the edges of the original city. I hope we can keep that up–growing up in a place where you can wander about and discover for yourself is an experience everyone should have.

  32. 32
    Trebuchet

    @Thumper:

    So a steelhead is a salmon? I thought it was a rainbow trout. Specifically, a rainbow trout just retrurned from the sea.

    You are correct. And thank you for picking this particular nit before I could! I really didn’t want to but sometimes I just can’t help myself!

  33. 33
    John Phillips, FCD

    Thanks PZ, beautifully written and it brought back fond memories of my childhood in the West Wales countryside. Though it was the banks of a stream with pen bola (bullheads) that was my playground, rather than a river with salmon.

  34. 34
    octopod

    You describe texture amazingly well. My dad’s a PNW boy too, and he’s always been crazy about cherries; I suppose it might be a regional thing? I feel that way about black Mission figs and those absurdly good strawberries that come out around Easter. And now I’m feeling homesick too, in my case for Central California; as the first snow of the year falls here in the Upper Midwest, I’m remembering the gusty winds bearing a distant smell of ag burns, and the pomegranates from our backyard tree, still the sweetest and darkest I’ve ever had; you pick them when they crack open.

    Also, trout vs salmon is pretty ambiguous; although the anadromous ones are more often called salmon and the wholly-freshwater ones trout, several species are capable of either depending where they end up. In any case all the trout/salmon on the West Coast are in the genus Oncorhynchus.

  35. 35
    gillt

    Very nice! My landlady hired a team to reduce an old cherry tree in the backyard to 2 foot thick discs. I called a friend with a rickety DIY smoker and a month later I was enjoying cherrywood smoked Yakima River king salmon. I had no idea what I was missing out on my whole life.

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