Ahhh... inhale deeply. October is here.
This is the month that actually announces its arrival with a smell and feeling so distinct that it sets it apart from all other months. The smell of cold air, wet, decomposing leaves, and a distant fire lit in someone’s hearth. It is said that smell evokes memories more vividly than our other senses. So with this month, when Fall’s aromas are in full swing, we remember that it is also the time for apple picking! Spring’s blossoms have been pollinated, and the gestation of one of Earth’s jewels has been completed.
One of my earliest memories is of watching fruit grow and picking it upon ripening. As a young’un, our family had fruit trees in our backyard. Cherries, apricots, pears, and plums were at my tiny fingertips. If no one was around to help me reach these precious fruits, there were always some to be found on the ground. My dad seemed to be forever pruning and spraying. The trees would yield so much fruit, more than we could eat before spoiling, my mother would can the excess allowing us to enjoy the fruits year round. Although, let’s be honest, fresh is always better than canned, even if you can yourself. I am sure she recalls our sour faces, as much as we remember making them, when she would pull out the jars and lids and begin boiling the water. When it came to fresh fruit, we were as spoiled as fallen fruit left to the elements.
Our days of tree-ripened fruit came to an end when I was seven, and my family had to relocate. Fruit trees weren’t part of the landscape of our new home because my father was no longer thrilled with how much of his free time was spent caring for them. From that moment on, the only fresh fruit we consistently had year round were the apples we purchased from the grocery store. I always had a fondness for apples, but at that time apples became a staple in my life. I remember always hearing the phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Perhaps it was my love of rhymes that endeared this message to me, but I took it as gospel, even when it failed me. I was prone to ear infections, surrendered to common colds, and bore a sore throat that blossomed into a full blown asthma attack, which landed me a night in the hospital and caused me to miss “picture day” in second grade. In spite of that, I continued fervently eating apples.
Growing up we always had Red Delicious in the house. There was a time when it seemed we lucked out with many water cores. My mother and I relished these apples. Any time we would discover one, we couldn’t wait to tell each other about it. There was a subtle tinge of envy, but mostly we were excited for each other to experience such sweet fortune. Somewhere along the way I transferred my affection to Golden Delicious. I loved the thinner skin and the pear-like taste. This lasted for years as my apple of choice, but upon moving to New York City I discovered Fuji. This has been my go-to apple ever since, as it’s sweet, crisp, thin-skinned, and very prone to water core.
Another exciting discovery after moving to New York was having locally grown apples available, nearly every day of the week, at the farmer’s markets that dot the city. Even better than that, these apples are grown close enough to go directly to the trees and pick the heart-shaped beauties with your own two hands. Perhaps it was nostalgia for my childhood and being able to pick fruit out of my own backyard, but I made sure to take advantage of the opportunity.
Over the last six years apple picking has become a ritual for me. It is one of the events I look forward to most in the Fall. There is something indescribable about it. You might ask yourself, “Do I really need to go on a journey for apples when I can buy them at the store down the street?” The answer: Yes, you do. The convenience of store apples is nice, but do you get that rush of excitement reaching for that wax-coated object? Are your nostrils filled with the cool, fresh, Fall air? Do you hear the wind blowing fallen leaves across the ground? Do you feel leaves and branches brushing against your hand as you pluck the fruit and put it in your basket? The first time I bought apples at the farmer’s market was eye opening. Being in the open air, surrounded by nature’s bounty, meeting the people that had a hand in growing what was to be eaten was all very enriching. To take it a step further and visit the very place where these apples were once beautiful flowers before blossoming into their full glory, to reach up and grab these gems from the tree, to essentially shake hands with that tree and thank it for its gift is truly a celebration. Imagine what it must feel like to be a part of the growing process: the planting and grafting, the caring and tending. That is real appreciation. To stand in an orchard and take in the sights, smells, sounds, and touch is magnificent. It’s enough to make me want to drop everything, move upstate, and plant my own orchard. Romantic visions for what is hard and dedicated work.
It would be hard to discuss apple picking without mentioning Johnny Appleseed. In the United States, he is a figure so closely tied with apples it is as if he invented them. One of the images that always comes to mind is a scene in a Disney animation I watched as child, where Johnny is nimbly ascending a ladder leaning against an apple tree while balancing a basket on his head. I marveled at his ability to do this with such ease. His talent in handling the apples like a skilled juggler was enviable. The way he sang to the birds as if they were friends, made him a kind soul I felt I could connect with. Johnny’s main purpose in life seemed to be traveling with his sack of seeds, cultivating apple orchards along the way.
The majority of apples grown in Johnny’s day were not as sweet as the varieties commercially produced today. This did not seem to matter as apples were used mostly for making hard cider. Back then colonists drank much more cider than water, as water was often fairly contaminated. Through the act of planting apple seeds without grafting, you end up with a mystery apple, which can tend towards the tangy side. For those of us who have been accustomed to getting our apples from the store, it seems as if there are only a handful of apple varieties in existence, but actually there are thousands (yes, thousands!) of varieties. Some have come and gone while others are grafted to continue on. In this fast-paced age, some people are taking a moment to pause and see what we might be missing out on. Through this, the cultivation of some of these heirloom varieties is making a comeback. You might come across something called a Roxbury Russet or an Esopus Spitzenberg. How about a Cox’s Orange Pippin or an Orleans Reinette? This is indeed exciting if you are looking to expand your apple knowledge beyond what you find commercially grown. Perhaps Fuji isn’t my perfect apple. Maybe I have yet to discover a new favorite variety.
Modern day Johnny Appleseeds can be found the world over. Apples are grown throughout the country and most of the Northern Hemisphere. If you live in these areas, then hopefully you won’t have to travel far for the experience. Here in New York, residents are extremely lucky to live in a state that is peppered with orchards. What makes those of us that live in NYC lucky is that these apples either come to us, or we can go to them. Fresh apples can be found around an hour away. Don’t worry if you don’t have a car or a driver’s license. Metro North Railroad has awesome packages called One Day Getaways. Every Fall, they offer a few excursions that include visiting an apple orchard. The trips are usually combined with visiting a winery or tea shop, and a cheese farm. These trips can be enjoyed either with family and friends, or by yourself. Going alone gives you the opportunity to meet your fellow travelers or take the time to be self-reflective and enjoy the fresh air and open spaces, while having someone to accompany you can lead to a whole day of fun that brings the free-spirited child out in you.
There are different approaches to apple picking. You can look into what apples are grown at the orchard you plan to visit beforehand and figure out what the apples are best suited for: fresh eating, cider making, baking, saucing, etc., or you can be surprised at what is offered and grab whatever catches your eye. Of course you can find descriptions about an apple you haven't tasted before, but to really understand the flavor you might need to sample one yourself. Some orchards allow for a few “samplings” as part of the cost. Find out if this is the case beforehand. If you feel guilty about doing this, you can always leave space in the bag they provide. Price is often based on filling a bag as opposed to weight or quantity. Whether you stick with one variety or pick every apple they offer, you are bound to grab more apples than you can possibly eat before they start to go soft. Once you start, it is really hard to stop. You will shuffle those apples around and around trying to find space for one more.
What do you do with your surplus of apples? You can bake a delicious apple pie or cobbler, turn them into a butter for your breakfast toast, mush them into a sauce, or ferment them into a delicious and refreshing hard cider. Of course, unless you have an apple press lying around, you may want to purchase apple cider from the growers to make your hooch. I find apples are impossible to have too much of, but if you just can't stomach the idea of eating what’s left, bring out your creative side. You can carve into them and make a relief print, turn them into potpourri, or try stringing them together to make a garland or wreath. The possibilities are endless. So what are you waiting for? Take a break from store bought apples this week, find your nearest apple orchard, and pay the trees a visit. Your tastebuds will thank you for it. Happy picking!