At around 1:30 in the morning on a humid Florida night in 1993, club bouncer Al Gliniecki woke up to the shrill sound of his telephone ringing off the hook on his bedside table. Shooting his hand through the darkness to grab it before it woke up the neighborhood, he held the receiver up to his ear and mumbled a weary, half-asleep hello.
“Hi,” said the woman on the other end of the line, the static phone connection crackling before she spoke again. “This a good time?”
Like the other women who’d been calling him at odd hours of the night for months, he’d never met her; he didn’t even know her name. “You’re the tongue-tying guy, aren’t you?” she cooed, spacing out each syllable so he’d hang on every word.
That he was. As is still the case today, Gliniecki, now 62, was the most accomplished, prolific and well-known cherry-stem tongue-tier in the world. Known far and wide for his ability to loop a cherry stem into a perfect knot with his mouth in mere seconds, he held four world records in the sport and had traveled the globe in pursuit of his passion. Most interestingly, he’d become the fixation of men and women wondering what else his talented tongue could do.
As such, he gained some local celebrity around his native Pensacola. His photos were plastered on the walls of bars and clubs all over town. He’d gotten to meet Mike Tyson, Keith Urban and Jay Leno. He dated models. His tongue was briefly insured by Lloyd’s of London. A one-time concert security guard, he’d even been invited on stage by bands like Van Halen who introduced him and his talent to entire arenas full of exhilarated women.
Off stage, the attention was constant and all-consuming, as people were convinced by a century’s worth of lore that the ability to tie a cherry stem in a knot with one’s tongue indicated a level of oral alacrity as beneficial below the belt as above. “I was put on a pedestal,” he tells me, explaining that for years, it seemed like women only wanted one thing from him. “You wouldn’t believe the dates I had.” Eventually, he realized he was just being used for his talent — “It was horrific! A guy’s worst nightmare!” — but it didn’t douse his flame. He was a go-getter with a god-given gift, and he was much more concerned with pursuing greatness than the breathy voices on the other end of the phone.
Of course, Gliniecki was neither the first guy nor the last to arouse an audience with the infamous cherry-stem tongue tie. According to Gordon Williams’ A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, male poets and authors have been using cherries as lyrical sex symbols to titillate their readers since at least the 17th century, invoking them as stand-ins for everything from dick tips to pubic hair. In 1655, authors Michel Millot and Jean L’Ange published The School of Venus, an erotic novel that compared cherries to the bulbous head of a penis, writing that “there’s a fold of skin towards the tip which draws back and uncovers a head like a huge red cherry — as pleasant to the touch as anything could be.” Five years later, John Garfield referred to sex as “playing at bobb-cherry” in his erotic and affably named pamphlet Wandering Whore II, and poets Josuah Sylvester and Robert Herrick likened “cherrielets” to “niplets” and “teates” in multiple works throughout 1684. Charles Cotton also famously compared a “garden-plot of maiden-hair” (i.e., pubes) to black cherries in Erotopolis, a meaning that stuck around for decades afterward.
These early connotations didn’t last, however. In the 19th century, cherries and their “juices” became more synonymous with female anatomy, purity and the loss of innocence, conveying a sort of nubile sexuality that, like a ripe cherry, was “ready” to be picked. “The most important (and widely used) [uses of the word] are those that deal with defloration and taking/losing a virginity like bust, cop or pop a cherry,” says slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, explaining that these associations were, like most sexual slang, probably created by a stereotypically male gaze. Thus began the cherry’s eventual association with a specifically female sort of purity; the kind that inspired countless male artists in the 19th century to paint creepy portraits of prepubescent girls posing alongside ripe red cherries, Warrant to sing “She’s my cherry pie” and the ska-swing band Cherry Poppin’ Daddies to name themselves Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.
Cherries have even become frequent emblems of lingerie and adolescent femme clothing, prompting Racked writer Rebecca Jennings to ask, “How come every single dress I want has cherries all over it but I won’t buy one out of fear that wearing cherry print is basically the equivalent of announcing, ‘Hello, world, I am a woman in my prime child-bearing years, so someone please inseminate me immediately?!’”
Beverley Clack, a professor of philosophy of religion at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., answered Jennings by explaining that cherries get their sex appeal from the fact that women, like plants, can “bear fruit.” “I wonder if there isn’t also the idea that innocent girls are just waiting to be picked,” she told Jennings. “There is something rather passive about the use of fruit imagery, and suggests that women are there to be eaten.” Of course, it’s the juiciest fruits that are the most erotic. “I’m sure there is absolutely nothing about that idea that connects it to the vagina!” Clack joked.
Where cherry-stem tying fits into all this is less clear, but Green says he’s always seen the tongue-tie trick as a tribute to “labial dexterity.” But even the most dextrous labia demand the proper stem, and as Gliniecki and others tend to agree, none comes from a better source than the maraschino cherry.
Chemically processed and preserved in syrup, maraschino stems are more flexible and less splintery than raw cherries, and they’re available year-round to practice with. According to James Michael of the Northwest Cherry Growers and Washington State Fruit Commission, the best of these tend to bloom in August, and for the most part, their stems get longer as the summer wears on. Rainiers, the yellow cherries, have some of the longest and most flexible stems, and while they’re often cured, dyed and made into maraschinos, you can still tie them raw if they’re fresh; Michael says any cherry with a flexible, bright green stem will do. Buying them from the refrigerated section will ensure they stay pliable.
Though, Gliniecki warns that stems plucked straight from the frigid waters of a cold drink aren’t ideal for tying — ice makes them firmer and less bendy — which is why he warms a couple up in his mouth or in some room temperature juice before he puts his tongue to work. The thinner and longer the stem, the better, but anything over an inch and a quarter “just gets in the way.”
Of course, all this was Greek to Gliniecki back in 1992 when he witnessed a cherry-stem tongue-tie for the first time. He was doing security at a bar on the end of a dock in Pensacola Beach and surveying the crowd, as one does, when he noticed a man surrounded by a flock of about 20 “real pretty women.” They were fixated on him, laughing and mesmerized by something he had in his mouth. Squinting to get a closer look, he saw that the man wasn’t at all attractive. In fact, he had his face screwed up so badly that it looked like he was trying to dislodge a popcorn kernel from the dark recess of his very back molars.
What the hell? Gliniecki thought to himself. What’s he doing over there?
Standing on his toes to get a closer look, he witnessed the man pull a short, thin maraschino cherry stem from his mouth. Radioactive red and glistening with triumphant spit, he held it up in the dim club lighting to reveal a perfect, tiny knot.
Delighted gasps passed between the women as they applauded the man’s party trick. “What else can he do with that tongue?” a tall brunette wondered aloud, a wry smile spreading across her face.
“Mm-hmm,” said another.
Gliniecki was amazed. This completely ordinary, middle-aged man had just waltzed into his bar and wooed every girl in the building like he was Paul McCartney at peak Beatlemania, all because of a little knot he could make with his tongue. “I’d never seen that before,” he says. “After the girls left, I asked if he could teach me.”
Soon after, he found himself practicing the four basic steps of cherry-stem tongue-tying over and over again. First: Chew the stem a little to soften it before letting it cross the tip of your tongue lengthwise. Then, close your lips and push it to the roof of your mouth. Bend both ends toward the teeth, push one end toward the other, and finally, with focus, determination and a little bit of willpower, loop one end over the other and use the teeth to tighten.
The first time he tried, it took him 20 minutes. But the more he practiced — sometimes wrestling 50 to 60 stems a night — the quicker he got. Soon, bar patrons were challenging him in time trials, and it wasn’t long before the club owner started using him as a local sideshow to attract the attention and beer money of soused spring breakers. One year, he found himself with roughly 10,000 bikini-clad college babes spilling across his section of the beach, absolutely annihilating anyone who attempted to out-tie him. “My boss got on the PA and told the crowd he’d give $1,000 to anyone who could beat me,” he says. “Like 50 lined up to try. That was a long, long day, but hell yeah, I beat ’em all!”
Eventually, Gliniecki got tired of the high fives and free beers. He wanted more, so an admirer suggested he step it up and go for a Guinness World Record. But since no one had ever set a cherry-stem tying record — or even suggested it before — Guinness let him make the rules:
- You can’t touch the cherry stem with anything other than your mouth.
- You have to spit it out when you’re done.
- The knot has to stick when it hits the table.
In 1994, Gliniecki set the first-ever world record for cherry-stem tying at his Pensacola bar, with 679 stems in 53 minutes (Van Halen even signed his certificate). The news hit the Associated Press the next morning, and before he knew it, he was hot shit. “I was getting interview requests and talk show invitations from all around the world,” he says. “The Tonight Show, Montel Williams, America’s Got Talent — I did them all.”
The following year, he eclipsed his own record on The Ricki Lake Show with 911 stems in one hour, a rate of roughly four seconds per stem. Afterwards, his mouth and tongue were so bloody and swollen that he had to go to the emergency room, missing his much-awaited slot on Oprah. But he didn’t care. By that time, cherry-stem tying had become far more than a pick-up tactic: It was his calling, a way of life. He didn’t mind shedding a little blood, sweat or tears, continuing on his reign of excellence with another record in 1999: thirty-nine stems in three minutes.
The sexed-up cherry-stem train didn’t stop with Gliniecki, however. Around the same time he was practicing for the future life of a minor celebrity, the world was introduced to another (though arguably less prolific) tongue-tying icon: Twin Peaks’ Audrey Horne.
Played by the breathtaking Sherilyn Fenn, Horne gave the world a collective erection during the show’s first season when she — a precocious 18-year-old with a knack for criminal investigation — secures a job at a brothel by doing nothing more than looping a cherry stem into a crude, knotted heart with her tongue. Though her character is both sexually and emotionally immature — Horne is a virgin — the action speaks of something far more advanced and passingly “adult” than what she’s ready for. But the madam buys her act and eats it up; as far as she’s concerned, playing around with a cherry stem like that must mean she’s ready to “play around” with something else.
Anyone who’s attempted the tongue tie themselves knows that Fenn wasn’t actually doing the cherry trick on camera — no one looks that hot when they’re trying to knot a stem — but fans didn’t care. It was such a sexy, pivotal moment that it spawned an entire multiverse of merch and fan-forum discussions, many of which assumed that Horne must have been practicing her “big girl skills” for Agent Cooper.
For people like 43-year-old NBC journalist Megan Carpentier, Horne’s little scene had a big impact. She was 12 when she first saw it, and she credits it as one of the sexual awakenings that catapulted her from innocent child to curious peripubescent. “I was in junior high — seventh grade,” she remembers. “I’m talking peak awkward, ugly-duckling Megan. It was 1990, so I had that dual bang tower thing, where you had the whispies coming down and the big hairspray fan going up. Acne. Dark circles. In the orchestra. In the honors and gifted class. There wasn’t a lot I knew about sex. You know what I’m saying?”
Thus, when Horne — the hottest possible virgin doing the least virginal thing — attempted to Nancy Drew a murder mystery with her mouth, the connection between cherries, tongue flexibility and sex appeal was forever cemented in her mind. Carpentier — who had never really thought about boys, but instantly recognized that a properly knotted cherry stem could make her desirable to them — was shook. “I thought it must be the epitome of good kissing,” she remembers. “It was clearly some über skill test for sexual prowess.” She decided right then and there that if she was going to survive in the dog-eat-dog dating world of seventh grade, she’d better pick up some of what Horne was putting down.
She started practicing, and eventually, she got so good that she put on an inadvertent, prematurely adult show at her cousin’s wedding a year or so later. Seated in front of a crowd of bemused onlookers who knew way more about what a flexible tongue implied than she did, she tied stem after stem until her parents found her by the trail of discarded 7Up cans that led to her table.
But all of that practice turned out to be for naught. Despite her talented tongue, her first kiss was “horrendous.” As it turned out, skilled smooching had little to do with the sort of hyper-focused tongue-to-tooth dexterity that cherry-stem tying required, and while it turned out to be a handy way to get a free drink at the bar later in life, it never lived up to its reputation. (Though, Carpentier does see an obvious connection between a juicy, ripe cherry and a freshly deflowered hymen — “Those things can really bleed.”)
“That’s the thing with this!” laughs Carla Sosenko, 44, also a journalist and cherry-stem tier. “It’s supposed to be this perfect indicator that you’re good in bed, but that’s kind of an immature, simplistic, elementary school way to look at sex. The fact that people still believe that it’s the ultimate sign of sexual prowess or innocence is insane to me.” In fact, despite its erotic history, it’s so separate from sexuality in her mind that she never even considered it as a flirty thing until our interview; to her, it was just something “weird” and “cool” she could do in the break room at work. “I didn’t realize that this was sexual signaling and was making the male viewer think of oral sex,” she says.
It isn’t always, but it’s particularly gross when it is. A year or so after Horne’s Twin Peaks moment aired, Fenn’s co-star Mädchen Amick, then 19, appeared on the talk show Into the Night With Rick Dees, where, after looking her up and down and moaning “Mmm,” he asks her to tie a cherry stem with her “incredibly agile tongue.” It’s unclear whether she agreed to do this beforehand, but her discomfort is palpable. Blushing, avoiding eye contact and visibly irritated, she submits to his badgering, slips the stem in her mouth and begins the tie, all while weathering an uncomfortably close camera, a series of inane sound effects orchestrated by Dees and the leering whoops of an audibly randy audience.
Sosenko, who watched the Amick video for the first time last week, found Dees’ behavior to be “disgusting” and “painful to watch.” “The noises he makes and the way he’s looking at her and talking to her — you can just tell she’s notably annoyed by it,” she tells me. “But of course she has to do it, because the only thing worse than having to do that would be being called a stick in the mud.”
As a fellow cherry-stem tier, she can relate. Even though she did it with the purest of intentions, she’s used to the tense and awkward seconds where everyone in the room is laser-focused on her mouth, imagining what she’s doing with her tongue. You look pretty weird when you do it too, so even for people like Sosenko or Carpentier who enjoy a good tie, there’s almost always a few uncomfortable moments where people are staring at them intently while they look their strangest.
Not that that’s stopped people from sexualizing it even further. After Horne, Amick and Gliniecki roused America’s interest in tongue-tying, the trick was featured in plenty more talk shows, sitcoms, movies and commercials, where countless Hot Women of Note looped stems in order to seduce audiences, sell syrupy sodas and symbolize the sort of “advanced” sexual aptitude Urban Dictionary insists the trick conveys. In 1995, Brooke Shields expertly executed the trick on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. In 2012, Miss America Olivia Culpo demonstrated it for her fans after revealing during a pageant that it was her “secret talent.” Rachel from Friends even chokes on a cherry stem in Season Four while trying to impress some wavy-haired guy in a brown blazer.
More recently, it’s even seeped into Nickelodeon, where it’s presumably warping the minds of hormonal pre-teens in the very same way Horne rewired Carpentier’s delicate developing brain in the 1990s. Among its most bizarre appearances occurred on the kids’ sitcom Drake & Josh when one of the two — don’t ask me which — excitedly refers to his female companion’s cherry-stem talents as “the ultimate sign of a good kisser.”
It was a weak, weird attempt at sexual tension, but its placement on a Nickelodeon show was one of the first signs that its sexual potency was becoming defunct. By the time Y2K hit, humanity had so much of the cherry-stem tongue tie that we even started satirizing it. In 2006, the parody film Date Movie roasted its juvenile ubiquity by showing its token Blonde Character inserting a single cherry stem into her mouth before removing a magnificent work of cherry-stem art sculpted into the shape of a miniature merry-go-round.
Will & Grace even got a jab in during its 2018 return when Karen — played by Megan Mullally — weaves a bunch of cherry stems into the name “Malcolm” with, for some reason, her vagina.
None of this history interests Gliniecki, of course. Though he’s seen the talk shows, the sitcoms and the movies, he finds the tricks portrayed in pop culture and on YouTube to be tepid and drab compared to what he does, much preferring the adrenaline of a good 900-stem time trial to Karen’s unrealistically nimble vagina.
As for his own craft, he’s still at it. He’s hoping to organize an official competition with men’s, women’s and kid’s categories, and he’s raring up to lay down a few more speed records once he finds the right venue. Every now and then he and his wife/manager Jeanette attend cherry festivals in Michigan, Montana and the Northwest, where between 75 and 90 percent of the country’s sweet cherries are grown. Many of the cherry companies and grower’s associations have contests: cherry spitting, cherry juice drinking and, naturally, cherry-stem tying. In 2014, Gliniecki and his wife drove up to the Guinness museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to set another record. Purely to outdo himself, he tied 13 stems in one minute.
So far, his only competition appears to be a precocious 9-year-old boy from New Jersey who had the gall to call Gliniecki and ask for his secrets so he could beat his record. “I had to talk to his mom,” he laughs. “He called me without her permission!” He hasn’t heard from him since, but that’s the kind of dedication to the craft he appreciates.
As is still the case, no one’s ever been able to replicate Gliniecki’s speed, let alone figure out what he’s doing inside his mouth. During a Regis and Kelly appearance, a dental hygienist stuck a tiny camera in his mouth to document his tongue movements, then projected the image on a 3-foot-wide screen for the audience to see. “Everyone was like, ‘Ooh, that’s disgusting,’” he says. Even so, they couldn’t figure out what his steps were. His legendary tongue obstructed the lens, leaving the inner workings of his fabled talent a mystery.
Thankfully, Mrs. Gliniecki keeps him grounded and in check. Anytime he gets a big head about being the greatest cherry-stem tier the world has ever known — or she finds herself having to field personal questions from curious friends — she assures them that they don’t have to be “too” impressed with him.
“Trust me,” she yells in the background while Gliniecki laughs on the phone. “It’s not all in the tongue!”