Saturday, October 21, 2023
It’s National Apple Day, which seems too good to pass up as a topic because it is most certainly apple season and that’s always a good thing.
Apples sort of get pumpkin-spice-everything status during fall. I mean, I will eat them any time of the year but during fall you kind of NEED them. The pies and the cobblers, the apple spice old fashioneds and apple pecan salads.
Right about this time last year I was in an apple orchard in upstate New York, picking to my heart’s content. It was the first time I’d been apple picking in probably more than twenty years. And yet as a kid, much like summers were for the zoo, fall was for apple picking every year.
I remember some years where the orchards had tall, round trees full of bright red and golden apples. The apples were much too high to reach so you’d get a picker – a little wire-tined basket at the end of a very long wooden pole – so you could reach up into the branches and pluck your treasures.
That was fun because it was like a little test of dexterity, a pre-video-game game of skill. Could you hold out this long pole steadily enough, and capture the apple just-so, and bring it down safely into your bag? One stretch of the arms, one apple at a time.
Other years and other orchards the trees were smaller and you could reach the apples if you were tall enough to stand on your tippytoes and grab them, or if you were small enough to fit on dad’s shoulders so he could lift you up to reach.
I don’t know if you were supposed to climb the trees but we always did. You’d find a tree with a branch low enough to swing yourself onto, but not too low, because you weren’t some wimpy kid who couldn’t swing yourself into a tree. Then you’d climb branch after branch, as long as there was a sturdy one beneath your feet, as high into the thicket of leaves as you could, big clusters of ripe fruit all around you.
Dad pushed you up. Mom worried you’d fall. You just needed apples.
You didn’t have to climb the trees to pick apples…. but you HAD to. Because the biggest and roundest and brightest apples were always just one more branch away, just at the edge of your fingertips, just a fraction out of reach so you had to climb and stretch and will yourself a few inches longer.
The problem with apples is that no matter how many you pick there are always more that you need. The minute you get the best one, there is another that looks even better. Sometimes there is a small one, but it is so perfectly round that you need it. Sometimes there is a fat one, and it is so big that you need it. Sometimes there is a perfectly average apple but it has the best little green leaf attached so you need it.
Getting an apple with a little green leaf attached to the stem was a prize.
The people who worked at the orchard gave you a bag or a bucket to fill and that was exactly the amount of apples you could take home. The bags and buckets were never big enough. We remedied that problem by eating a few dozen before we left.
Few things in life are as delicious and perfect as eating an apple right off the tree. Bugs are irrelevant. Washing it is irrelevant. You just polish it up on your sleeve and bite into all that warm, juicy goodness.
Sun-warmed apples are the best. When I buy apples at the grocery store I keep them on the counter as long as possible because I don’t like cold apples. But eating them fresh on a crisp fall day can’t be beat.
After apple picking came cider and freshly fried donuts. The donuts we got at the apple orchard were the best donuts I’ve ever had in my life. The cider was the best cider. The donuts and the cider together… well, you could die happy.
When Ralph and I went apple picking last year we behaved much like the five and six and ten and twelve year old kids we once were. We got a bag to fill and made a Tetris game out of wedging as many apples as possible into it. We ate the ones that didn’t fit.
We climbed trees and stretched as far as we could to reach the one perfect apple just beyond our fingertips. We picked two dozen red apples then saw the pink ones and needed two dozen of those. We tried to get cider and donuts but after an hour of standing on line, mostly in the same place, we admitted defeat and decided to take our bounty home and let the donuts live on in our dreams.
The orchard was one I knew from many autumns as a kid. Our decision to go was impulsive. When we arrived, the world had changed quite a bit since I’d last been there. Crowds of people flocked to food trucks and lines of people wove around them toward the entry where you picked up your bag. We waited for some time, then reached the counter. I asked for a bag.
The woman asked if I had a reservation.
A what? To pick apples? No, I did not have a reservation.
She pointed to a sign. You had to book your time slot on line ahead of time, and they were booked out for several weeks.
Now. Let me fill you in on a little something. I’m not a confrontational person. If someone says you need a reservation and I don’t have one, I slink away in disgrace and wait for my turn. But sometimes… sometimes I get a bee.
I got a bee that day.
Instead of walking away I launched into a tale of woe about how I’d traveled all the way from Tennessee to see my childhood orchard. There was much gesticulating and appealing for the merest exception. I honestly think the woman was so baffled that her only objective was to get rid of me as quickly as possible so she could get on with texting whoever was waiting on the phone dangling from her limp, befuddled fingers.
I got my bag. No reservation required.
We went home with 25 pounds of apples in a bag and perhaps five in our bodies. Many pies were made, many cocktails consumed. There was apple crisp and apple bitters, apple syrup and apple cake. They were the best apples I’ve eaten in more than 20 years. I didn’t put them in the refrigerator.
Apples are lovely and delightful any time of the year but they acquire a certain deliciousness in the fall that you can’t quite capture during any other season. Even though they aren’t fresh off a tree, I’ve been compelled lately to fill my grocery cart with apples of all colors and sizes. I’ve picked strawberries and pumpkins, watermelons and cherries. But apple picking has my heart. I will go again, perhaps next fall, and maybe I’ll even get donuts. Until then I’ll bask in the sunny memories and munch on my Honeycrisp.
Photo: a most excellent branch for climbing while you pick all that lusciousness.