Wednesday, October 5, 2011
In conversation, I might accidently say something about the apple farm where I grew up. And then I have to correct myself and say the apple farm where I once lived. But sometimes it seems that my life truly started when I moved to the apple orchard, and ended when I left. This is not to minimize the life of city dwellers or suburbanites, but life on the farm, no matter how hard, no matter how isolating, feels real times a hundred.
On the farm, we can sense fall before it arrives. It’s not the temperature, but more of an instinct. Subconsciously we know when the sun disappears below the horizon in a certain location, apple season is upon us.
On the farm, we watch and test the apples, cutting samples daily as we wait for the right level of ripeness in order to commence harvest. It varies depending upon variety. Cool nights will put just the right amount of blush on a Winesap, and a dip close to freezing will make Red Delicious almost purple. The flavor itself is determined by soil and rainfall, sunlight and magic. In a perfect season, everything happens at the right time, and harvest launches into full swing long after those tart summer apples have come and gone, long after they’ve been turned into applesauce and consumed at a family picnic.
As the days grow shorter and the evening air takes on a chill, it’s time to attach flatbeds to tractors and haul large wooden boxes to the orchard where the containers are dropped off at trees that await pickers. Early morning comes, and the pickers pile into trucks that take them to the orchard. Once there, they strap on metal picking baskets and balance tall ladders with wide bases and narrow tops against horizontal limbs. The metal baskets fit against the body like a baby carrier, leaving both hands free to pluck ripe fruit from the highest branches. Once the baskets are filled, the picker climbs down and unwraps the ropes that open the canvas bottom of the picking basket, gently releasing the apples into the wooden boxes that will later be delivered to the sorting room.
Every day of picking brings us closer to a complete harvest. Every storm that misses the farm and every freeze that doesn’t happen brings us nearer to season’s end.
Full crates are stacked on pallets, and a barn that was empty gradually fills, the smell of apples increasing with each day, saturating our flannel shirts and hair until we lose track of where we end and the orchard begins.
We’re up before dawn, and in bed long after midnight. On cold mornings, sluggish bees cling to apples as if trying to stop the approaching winter. Dew-covered fruit is dumped on a conveyor belt that sorts by size while workers manually watch for bruises and blemishes, plucking the imperfect from the line. The sorted apples are crated, most ending up in the saleroom for purchase, but seconds and small apples will find their way to the cider room to be pureed and layered between cider cloths and wooden slats, pressed until no more juice can be extracted. What’s left between the cider clothes is called pummy, and it looks like light-colored chewing tobacco. Nothing is wasted, and the pummy is driven to a pasture and fed to cattle that follow behind as the apple remains are shoveled from the wagon while bees hover drunkenly.
The best cider is made from a combination of apples, the foundation being traditional varieties such as Jonathan to ensure that the result isn’t too sweet. True cider is 100% juice with nothing added. As with cider, the best pies come from a combination of both tart and sweet, and also a combination of textures--apples that stay solid and apples that cook down. Experiment. Add a little nutmeg. Let every pie be a new creation. No two pies will ever be the same, and no two growing seasons will produce the same flavor of apples.
On those beautiful fall days, customers drive from the cities and small towns to the salesroom in order to inhale the aroma of newly picked apples and fresh cider. They have a vague notion of the labor and of how the apples got there, got into this bag on this table in front of them. Most don’t care how the trees were pruned in the cold of winter, or how bees were trucked in to pollinate the blossoms in the spring, or how half of the crop was lost due to an early frost. They want the experience of the moment. They want to touch something hard to define. Maybe it’s their past. Maybe it goes back even further, to Adam and Eve.
What I'm doing:
I'm preparing to participate in a few events In California. One is the brainchild of Susan McBeth and Adventures By the Book. You can read about it here.
The following day takes me to Manhattan Beach, California and Ladies, Lunch, and Literacy
, followed by a signing at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Redondo Beach.
The comment section is closed due to my book-tour schedule.