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Centuries-old cherries were found at George Washington's home. What can they tell us?

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Centuries-old cherries were found at George Washington's home. What can they tell us?

Archaeologists on a multi-year restoration project found 35 bottles of cherries and berries in five different pits in the Mount Vernon cellar.

George Brown/Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association


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George Brown/Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Archeologists at George Washington’s historic Virginia home have unearthed more than two dozen bottles of cherries and berries dating back to the 18th century in a particularly juicy find.

Officials first announced in April that they had discovered two glass jars of cherries, liquid and pits while excavating the cellar of Mount Vernon, the residence, plantation and final resting place of the nation’s first president.

Further sweetening the deal, last week they announced the discovery of 35 more fruit-filled vessels. Officials say 29 of the bottles are intact and contain “perfectly preserved cherries and berries, likely gooseberries or currants.”

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“To our knowledge, this is an unprecedented find and nothing of this scale and significance has ever been excavated in North America,” Mount Vernon President and CEO Doug Bradburn said in a statement.

A view of preserved cherries inside one of the bottles found at Mount Vernon.

A view of preserved cherries inside one of the bottles found at Mount Vernon.

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The bottles, whose shapes are characteristic of styles from the 1740s and 1750s, were discovered in five storage pits throughout the cellar.

“These artifacts likely haven’t seen the light of day since before the American Revolution, perhaps forgotten when George Washington departed Mount Vernon to take command of the Continental Army,” Bradburn added.

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That was in 1775.

Archaeologists revisited the site as part of a privately funded $40 million preservation project, aimed at ensuring Mount Vernon’s structural integrity and slated for completion in 2026 — just in time for America’s 250th birthday.

Now, fresh off this well-preserved discovery, researchers hope that modern technology will allow them to learn more about the cherries and, by extension, the world from which they came.

Jason Boroughs, the principal archaeologist at Mount Vernon, called the discovery “beyond extraordinary.” He told NPR and WBUR’s Here & Now in April that “intact 18th-century food remains is just not something that’s typically found.”

The cherries, he added, can serve as a window into the environment and cuisine of the period, as well as the entire Mount Vernon community — and not just the first first family.

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“The bottles and the contents are actually material items that were connected to real lives and real people in the past,” Boroughs said. “They may have been intended for the Washingtons’ table, but they were certainly picked and packaged and stored by members of the enslaved community here.”

The cherries can teach us about life at Mount Vernon

George Washington's residence in Mount Vernon, Va.,

George Washington’s residence in Mount Vernon, Va.,

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Boroughs said this month the bottles and their contents are a “testament to the knowledge and skill of the enslaved people who managed the food preparations from tree to table” at Mount Vernon.

At least 577 enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon during the course of Washington’s life, according to the institution. Washington left instructions in his will for the eventual emancipation of those he owned.

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Among them was Doll, who was 38 in 1759 when Martha Washington brought her and her five children to the estate and placed her in charge of the kitchen.

Doll likely no longer had a formal work assignment in her later years, but continued to “use the kitchen to distill rose and mint water for medicinal purposes and to dry fruits such as cherries,” historians say.

In fact, a 1795 letter from Martha Washington to her niece, Fanny Bassett, appears to acknowledge Doll’s expertise in that area.

Martha Washington, writing from Philadelphia to Bassett, who lived at Mount Vernon, mentions that she would like “some of the morelly cherrys” dried, adding, “I should think old Doll cannot have forgot how to do them.”

Bottles sit on trays on a lab table.

18th-century bottles that contained fruit sit inside an archaeology lab near George Washington’s residence in Mount Vernon, Va., on Monday.

Nathan Ellgren/AP

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It’s not the only clue that the Washingtons were fans of cherries.

Historians at Mount Vernon say the family often enjoyed a popular brandy-based drink called “Cherry Bounce,” made from cherry juice infused with spices over the course of two weeks.

Washington was apparently such a fan of the cordial that, as general, he packed a “canteen” of it — as well as Madeira and port — for a 1784 journey across the Allegheny Mountains.

Boroughs told Here & Now that there is also evidence — including from letters and diaries of Chesapeake planters — that families in the area would enjoy bowls of preserved cherries with meals.

“So it’s quite likely that these bottles had been on the Washingtons’ table more than once,” he said.

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The 18th-century preservation process involved placing the cherries in dry bottles, corking them and then burying them under heavy clay, to protect the fleshy fruits from elements like mold and fungus.

Normally, Boroughs said, they were only intended to be stored as such for about a year.

“But it’s because of the way that they were placed in the ground and there they remained until this year that they were able to survive, basically, the ravages of time,” he explained.

Scientists hope the discovery might bear fruit

Fruit substance is carefully extracted from a bottle.

Fruit substance is carefully extracted from a bottle.

Tess Ostoyich/Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association


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Tess Ostoyich/Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Experts have extracted the contents of the bottles and refrigerated them at Mount Vernon, where they will undergo scientific analysis. The bottles themselves are “slowly drying” in the lab and will be sent off-site for conservation, officials say.

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Mount Vernon is partnering with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to analyze the 250-year-old produce.

Benjamin Gutierrez, a plant geneticist and the apple and tart cherry curator at the USDA-ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit in New York, told NPR that the first thing his team did was advise the archeologists on how to extract the substance from the bottles in the hopes of best “capturing that moment of the last hands that put them in the earth.”

“We had anxiety,” he said. “You hear ‘fruit remains’ and you’re picturing what’s in the back of your fridge, right? It’s slowly degrading now that it’s out in the open, we’ve got to get to this before it turns to pulp.”

Gutierrez says their main priority is to extract DNA from the cherry tissue and compare it to their robust tart cherry database to try to identify — or at least narrow down — which variety the Washingtons grew and enjoyed at Mount Vernon. That could, in turn, shed light on how the Virginia climate has changed since.

Researchers suspect the cherries are of a tart variety, with a relatively acidic composition that likely helped aid in their preservation.

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So far, Gutierrez says they have identified 54 cherry pits and 23 stems from sifting through just the first two vessels — which would suggest that each bottle was at least originally chock full of some 50 to 70 cherries.

A person holds tubes with liquid extracted from the cherry bottles.

Curator Lily Carhart holds up different samples of liquid they extracted from a few dozen bottles.

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The sheer amount of material, he adds, means researchers can be a little bit more “adventurous” in what they do to some of it while carefully preserving the rest.

“Who knows in another 100 years what other tests they might want to do,” he says.

In the nearer-term, his team hopes to have more answers within six months or a year. One of the biggest questions is whether they can germinate seeds from any of the cherry pits to grow a new tree.

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Gutierrez says it’s somewhat of a long shot, since many of the pits are waterlogged. And even if germination is possible, the seeds wouldn’t produce the same exact “mother tree,” but rather the next generation of it.

Still, he says, it would be really something to plant a new tree out of historic cherry pits.

“We work so much with heirloom groups conserving grandma’s apple tree in their backyard,” he adds. “Fruit somehow captures our imagination and our culture more than any other crop, I feel like.”

And one could argue that would be the cherry on top for Washington of all people, given one of the most enduring myths about him centers on chopping down that very type of tree.

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NBA signs media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon, leaving TNT behind

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NBA signs media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon, leaving TNT behind

An NBA logo is seen on an official game ball before a game, Feb. 1, 2014, in New York. The NBA said Wednesday that it is not accepting Warner Bros. Discovery’s $1.8 billion per year offer to continue its longtime relationship with the league and therefore has entered into a deal with Amazon Prime Video.

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The NBA signed its 11-year media rights deal with Disney, NBC and Amazon Prime Video on Wednesday after saying it was not accepting Warner Bros. Discovery’s $1.8 billion per year offer to continue its longtime relationship with the league.

The media rights deals were approved by the league’s Board of Governors last week and will bring the league about $76 billion over those 11 years.

WBD had five days to match a part of those deals and said it was exercising its right to do so, but its offer was not considered a true match by the NBA. That means the 2024-25 season will be the last for TNT after a nearly four-decade run.

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“Warner Bros. Discovery’s most recent proposal did not match the terms of Amazon Prime Video’s offer and, therefore, we have entered into a long-term arrangement with Amazon,” the league said Wednesday. “Throughout these negotiations, our primary objective has been to maximize the reach and accessibility of our games for our fans. Our new arrangement with Amazon supports this goal by complementing the broadcast, cable and streaming packages that are already part of our new Disney and NBCUniversal arrangements. All three partners have also committed substantial resources to promote the league and enhance the fan experience.”

What Amazon Prime Video gets

Amazon Prime Video will carry games on Friday nights, select Saturday afternoons and Thursday night doubleheaders which will begin after the conclusion of Prime Video’s “Thursday Night Football” schedule. Prime Video will also take over the NBA League Pass package from WBD.

“The digital opportunities with Amazon align perfectly with the global interest in the NBA,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “And Prime Video’s massive subscriber base will dramatically expand our ability to reach our fans in new and innovative ways.”

The package also includes at least one game on Black Friday and the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game of the NBA Cup.

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“Over the past few years, we have worked hard to bring the very best of sports to Prime Video and to continue to innovate on the viewing experience,” said Jay Marine, global head of sports for Prime Video. “We’re thrilled to now add the NBA to our growing sports lineup, including the NFL, UEFA Champions League, NASCAR, NHL, WNBA, NWSL, Wimbledon, and more. We are grateful to partner with the NBA, and can’t wait to tip-off in 2025.”

ESPN and ABC keep the NBA Finals

ESPN and ABC will keep the league’s top package, which includes the NBA Finals. ABC has carried the finals since 2003.

ESPN/ABC will combine for nearly 100 games during the regular season. More than 20 games will air on ABC, mainly on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, while ESPN will have up to 60 games, mostly on Wednesday nights with some Friday games. ABC and ESPN will also combine for five games on Christmas Day and have exclusive national coverage of the final day of the regular season.

During the playoffs, ESPN and ABC will have approximately 18 games in the first two rounds each year and one of the two conference finals series in all but one year of the agreement.

NBC becomes a second network partner

The return of NBC, which carried NBA games from 1990 through 2002, gives the NBA two broadcast network partners for the first time.

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NBC will have up to 100 regular-season games, including on Sunday night once the NFL season has ended. It will air games on Tuesdays throughout the regular season, while a Monday night doubleheader would be exclusively streamed on Peacock.

NBC will also have the All-Star Game and All-Star Saturday Night. During the playoffs, NBC and/or Peacock will have up to 28 games the first two rounds, with at least half on NBC.

NBC and Amazon will also carry one of the two conference finals series in six of the 11 years on a rotating basis. NBC will have a conference final in 2026-27 followed by Amazon the next season.

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President Biden Addresses Nation After Dropping Out, Time For New Generation

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

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These dictators are different. 'Autocracy, Inc.' explains how

Naval vessels participate in a Taiwanese military drill near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016.

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The United States and other major democracies face the most challenging geopolitical landscape in decades. The crises include a bloody battle for land in Eastern Europe that challenges the principle of territorial sovereignty, the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the coming years and a brutal war in Gaza that could still spread.

We are in a new era, but how do we define it, and what is the fundamental threat?

Several recent books tackle this crucial question. New York Times White House and National Security correspondent David Sanger calls this historical moment “New Cold Wars.” He sees the U.S. defending the West against a rising China and resurgent Russia. CNN anchor and Chief National Security analyst Jim Sciutto calls it “The Return of Great Powers.”

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In her new book, the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum takes a different, more sweeping view. We are not in Cold War 2.0, she argues, but a battle for the future world order against what she calls “Autocracy, Inc., The Dictators Who Want to Rule the World.

Autocracy, Inc., is not a club. There are no meetings like SPECTRE in a James Bond movie, where villains give progress reports on their kleptocratic gains and attacks on democracy. Instead, Applebaum writes, it is a very loosely knit mix of regimes, ranging from theocracies to monarchies, that operate more like companies. What unites these dictators isn’t an ideology, but something simpler and more prosaic: a laser-focus on preserving their wealth, repressing their people and maintaining power at all costs.

These regimes can help each other in ways large and small, Applebaum writes.

Countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus and Cuba voted in favor of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the United Nations in 2014. Russia gave loans to Venezuela’s authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, while Venezuelan police use Chinese-made water cannons, tear gas and surveillance equipment to attack and track street protesters.

Of course, U.S. companies have also supplied authoritarian regimes. When covering the crushing of the democracy movement in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, I rummaged through bins of empty rubber bullet canisters made by a company in Pennsylvania.

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More recently and more alarming, though, have been China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s June visit to North Korea, which the U.S. accuses of supplying weapons to Russia.

But Autocracy Inc., uses more than conventional arms to attack democracies. In order to retain power and build more wealth, autocrats also undermine the idea of democracy as a viable choice for their own people. Fearful of its former Soviet republics drifting further West – see Ukraine – Russia and its three main TV channels broadcast negative news about Europe an average of 18 times a day during one three-year stretch.

Autocracy, Inc.

China extends its message through local media and helps other dictatorships. After satellite networks dropped Russia Today – RT – following the invasion of Ukraine, China’s StarTimes satellite picked up RT and put it back into African households, where it could spread Moscow’s anti-Western, anti-LGBTQ message, which resonates in many African nations.

The goal is not to persuade people that autocracy is the answer, but to encourage cynicism about the alternative. Applebaum says the message is this: You may not like our society, but at least we are strong and the democratic world is weak, degenerate, divided and dying.  

How did the world end up here?

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Applebaum is strong on how Western misjudgment and greed enabled and empowered autocrats over the decades. A working theory in Washington and Berlin was that greater economic integration and dependency between the West and China and Russia would serve as a glue and deterrent, making conflict too costly. But Europe’s dependence on Russian gas predictably backfired. Moscow used it as a source of blackmail following the invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, corporate America’s heavy investment in China helped fuel the country’s extraordinary economic rise, but didn’t lead to the desired political results. Instead of becoming a more liberal, Western-friendly regime, the Communist Party became a more powerful rival. Among other things, Beijing used its new wealth to build islands in the South China Sea and a blue-water navy to challenge America’s.

At just over two hundred pages, Applebaum’s book is slender. She might have done more to detail the boomerang effect of globalization. When American companies exported jobs to China, they cut labor costs, boosted profits and lowered prices for consumers. Those business decisions devastated communities built on everything from auto plants to furniture factories.

That sowed the seeds for the populist backlash in 2016 that continues to roil the country to the benefit of America’s authoritarian opponents.

What is to be done? First, make life harder for dictators.

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Applebaum says democratic nations have to make it more difficult for kleptocrats to stash their money overseas. She suggests an international coalition of treasury and finance ministry officials across Europe, Asia and North America work to strengthen transparency and tighten laws together.

This will be tough. Kleptocrats make lucrative clients for lawyers, financiers and real estate agents. One of London’s unofficial industries is money-laundering. And, in a complex political landscape, it can be useful for democracies to work with corrupt regimes to achieve bigger goals.

Another way to combat dictatorship is for democracies to deliver at home, as Charles Dunst argues in Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman. Political grid-lock, income inequality, stagnant wages and rising crime can provide fertile ground for populists.

Anti-incumbency and accountability have stood out as themes during this epic year of elections as voters punished long-serving parties, such as the Conservatives in the UK and the African National Congress in South Africa.

More broadly, Applebaum says, democratic countries need to reduce their economic dependence on authoritarian rivals. Europe’s reliance on Russian gas was an embarrassing and costly lesson. Minerals could prove another one for the United States.

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Today, the U.S. only produces 4% of the world’s lithium and 13% of its cobalt, while China processes more than 80% of all critical minerals.

With the world’s next geopolitical fault-line perhaps lying in the waters around the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, this kind of math just doesn’t figure.

Frank Langfitt is NPR’s Global Democracy correspondent. Previously, he spent nearly two decades reporting overseas, based in Beijing, Nairobi, Shanghai and London. In February 2022, he covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

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