Nothing for me, unpacks homegrown memory like apples. And my dad jogged that memory by bringing a box of apples from Western New York this May.
I grew up in an apple orchard.
There is a picture of me as a three-year-old wedged between bushels of apples on my grandfather’s farm wagon. My mother put me there to keep me from toddling around the wheels of the oil- and dust-caked Alis Chalmers that pulled the wagon through the soggy, September orchard.
My hands were too small to hold an apple, so I would press the apple to my chest. This explains the heart-sized, brown stains on my sweatshirt.
Our family orchard was tended by my parents and grandparents. Later, my sister and I tried our hand at pruning, picking, and mowing, when we weren’t sparring over the work. We tended varieties planted by my grandfather’s father or his father with names like: Rome, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Cortland—names that nodded to other growing areas in New York.
My favorite apple trees stood near the back of the barn and the lilac hedge—the farthest from the house, of course. The hike was worth it. Biting into the rich, maroon skin of the plump Cortland, yielded large flavor and crisp, smooth-grained flesh. Likewise, the McIntosh, while more colorful and a bit tarter, was another favorite I hugged to my chest.
Susan Brown, Professor of Horticultural Studies at Cornell University, outlines a history of apples at (http://cals.cornell.edu/cals/public/impact/apple-varieties.cfm). My grandfather once told me that my favorite Cortland’s were a hybrid. The website explains that Cortland’s are a hybrid of Ben Davis and McIntosh. Cortland’s were developed in 1915, four years after my grandfather was born. He might have been a shirt-stained toddler too, when my favorite tree was sent from Cornell for planting.
The apples my father brings are Empires, a hybrid of the McIntosh and the school cafeteria favorite: Delicious. The Empires were developed in 1966, probably too late for our orchard.
What I remember most about apple season was the inescapable aroma wafting across the ancient orchard: wet grass, drying leaves, strains of wood smoke and fragrant, lingering apple. The smells mingled saying it was time to do what generations of my family had done: harvest and put-up apples for another year.
Some varieties held up well in my grandmother’s basement, others my mother and grandmother made into applesauce or sliced and froze for pies for home and church. The best apples, though, went directly from tree to tummy!
How I loved to ride the apple wagon when it left the harbor of the orchard! My sister and I would sit on top of the baskets. Apple stems poked through our pants, as our hands gripped the rough-edged bushels.
I can still hear the belch of the tractor as it lumbered through our tiny village of Pekin, threading its way past the Methodist Church and the old Grange Hall up Townline Road to Kelch’s Cider Mill. When the tractor slowed, we’d lose our balance in the lurch of the trailer against the hitch. As cars, tractors and trucks piled up behind us, my sister and I reveled in our place in this seasonal parade.
One year, my family resurrected a blackened, hand-cranked, turn-of-the-century cider press from the barn. Whether the crank was too hard to turn or too many bosses were involved, we pressed cider only once. I still recall the tangy, foam-topped cider that dribbled from the press and my wonder at the secrets the press might reveal from its ten or more decades of family cider making.
But my favorite apple memory is a simple, repeatable one. My grandmother, a respected farm- and Grange-woman could peel apples in a rhythmical, mesmerizing blur, rendering an apple skin into a single, long peel. She had a lot of practice, but her ability to separate an apple into one part curvy peel and one part naked apple was magical.
And, as if munching down the crunchy, table-length peelings without breaking that continuous coil weren’t reward enough, I grew up on the best apple pies, tarts, and sauce heard of in the Empire State.
I like to think about how the different varieties of apples planted through the generations came together at our table. As new family members join our table— like new apple varieties—they bring with them names telling stories of their origins too. But above all, through the generations we keep walking among those trees, holding apples close to heart.