Okay, I am quite aware that many of these recent blog posts revolve around my working through some layer of the geologic history of my neuroses. You know, we show up at Washington Square and all of a sudden—surprise!—I am talking about me. This can be irritating to all of us. Believe me, I know. But the truth is that all writing is autobiographical anyway—at least on some level. I mean, I wrote about Washington Square and not Hanoi. There is an autobiographical reason for that, whether I speak of it or not.
|Apple from Wellwood Orchards, Vermont|
Having said this, I am going to try, for a while, to return to the Adventures of the Caravan of Wonder and tell you about some of the things we have done in the past month or so. The topic that comes up first for me is . . . drum roll . . . Apples.
Way back in October, while we parked the Monster in the Tree Farm Campground, in Springfield, Vermont, during the great explosion of the fall color box, one day Knightsmama and I abandoned the boys, leaving them to their electronic devices, and wandered up the road only a short way to Wellwood Orchards. In a road trip full of great moments, this, to me, is one of the most memorable. This farm is our contemporary vision of what a rural community should be. I mean, you know the problem, a small family farm is a never ending risk. It takes brave, hearty, and very creative and intelligent folks to keep a farm running year after year and generation after generation. Nowadays what many do is turn the farm into a destination for the city folks, a place for the entire family to live, for two hours or so, a dream of a kinder, gentler nation. For the kids we have a petting zoo with rabbits, chickens, and goats. For grandma and grandpa, we have nut brittles and a jars of jellies and jams and pickled veggies, just like they grew up with (or like they ate at their grandparents’ houses), and for mom and dad, we have something wholesome that the entire family can participate in: a tractor trailer ride up the dirt road to a massive grove of apple trees for pick-your-own madness. The kids run wild and the grandparents reminisce. You can return, year after year, and never grow tired of it. Plus, you go home with a bag full of apples that you picked yourself. Friends and neighbors go ooh and aah. What could be better? In an era when food has become merely a commodity, like any other piece of junk from Wal-Mart, purchased because it is cheap and available, a farm like this is a revelation about community and interconnectedness and a brief therapeutic salve from the original therapeutic salve creator—nature.
|Barnyard at Wellwood Farms|
Knightsmama and I decided to walk up the slight hill to the grove of trees we were directed towards. “Grove” doesn’t describe this accurately. Orchard. Huge orchard. We are talking rows and rows, long lines of trees, acres and acres, thousands of trees, with a couple of tractor roads between. This is an orderly place, like a school room with the trees being desks, or a church with row upon row of pews. At the ends of the pews, there are signs telling you what kind of apple tree occupies that row. At the top of the rise, Knightsmama and I separated, each with our little quarter peck bags. For a while I just walked and watched others. Apple season is long, I discovered, and many trees were already empty of fruit. But after a few minutes, walking further up the hill, I discovered a section of a row loaded with apples. At the spur of the moment, believing myself somehow a thief, I reached up, pulled gently, feeling an only slightly reluctant give. Remembering from childhood the joy of polishing an apple on my shirt—and perhaps recalling something from Meryl Streep about pesticides (I do not know if these apples were sprayed), I shined up the apple and bit into it.
Oh my god. With apologies to every girl I have kissed, this was one of the great sensual moments of my life. There was crunch as I bit it, layers of different kinds of sweetness as I chewed and swallowed, and the uncontrollable urge to bite again, and again. Then it was gone. Yes, juice did run down into my beard. Like a child afraid of getting caught with my hands in the cookie jar, I looked up and down the rows and surreptitiously tossed the core to the ground beneath the tree two trees away from me. I wiped my mouth with my sleeve, put a couple of apples in my bag—they turned to be just regular, old, McIntosh apples—and moved on up the hill. What miracles awaited?
I met up with Knightsmama, and we exclaimed and emoted to each other about how wonderful the apples were and how much we just loved being there and how dumb the boys were for skipping an adventure like this. We each chomped on an Empire, crisp and slightly spicy—less sweet than others. We talked with a fellow pulling a child’s wagon with his load, and he directed us to the Cortlands, which we greatly appreciated. We ended up two small bags of apples: Cortlands, McIntoshes, Macouns, and a few Empires. We added a jar of picked beets, some local cheese and bread to the basket and drove home. Two days later, Knightsmama persuaded Captain Crunch to return with us, if only for the rabbits and chickens.
We munched on these apples for the next few weeks while we explored Vermont, and while we poked around the edges of Boston—first, Sturbridge, then Salem, finally Middleborough. Time passed, and we made our way to Narragansett, Croton-on-Hudson, and Jersey City, all of which I’ve have discussed in previous posts while imposing my neuroses upon my readers. By the middle of November, we had arrived at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, south of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and north of Gettysburg, where we parked the monster for a week. On the day when we drove down to the battlefield, we noticed we were in apple country again, row upon row of trees stretched out upon the rolling hills. Then we spied Hollabaugh Brothers FarmMarket. With visions of fresh local apples dancing in my head, I jerked the wheel of the truck to the left, crossed the lane, and skidded into gravel parking lot. Like Wellwood Orchards, Hollabaugh is family owned. Unlike Wellwood, it is not a pick-your-own operation, though you can schedule group tours and pick you own then. Instead, their focus is totally and fully on the fruit-stand-on-the-highway motif, with all the accoutrements the experienced traveler expects: jams and jellies, fruit pies, scented candles, frozen treats, and object de country kitsch. And huge displays of many kinds of apples for mix-and-match munching.
|Inside at Hollabaugh Brothers|
We purchased the usual array of morning muffins, hot coffee, and a bag of Honey Crisps. But then as if struck by a thunder bolt from the Atalanta, I was impregnated with the urge to organize a family apple tasting. I have already written about my experiences tasting beer across the country, and the family has grown used to watching me type notes in my telephone. So when I suggested that we purchase two of each kind of apple available, they were game. Hey, it’s clean family fun—without the x-box and television!
Over the year, Hallabaugh Brothers Farm grows twenty-four varieties of apples. In mid-November, several had already passed their season, so we were able to taste thirteen of them. Here was the process. For about a week, each morning before we left the trailer for the day’s adventure, Captain Crunch and I sliced up two or three apples. Then the four of us grabbed slices, chomped and chewed, and offered our totally uninformed opinions about what we were sampling. But it was fun comparing our various distinctions of sweetness, sour and citrus, crispness, firmness, and skin textures. Is this part of our sons’ education? I suppose it is, as we would never have thought to organize such an event, even while wandering the aisles of Wholefoods.
Here, in somewhat brief form, are the results. 1Apple is the lowest rating; 5 Apples is the highest rating.
Banana Apple: Yellow in color. A bit mushy in texture. Kind of nothing taste. Our least favorite apple. We have learned that we purchased it at the end of its season. 2 Apples.
Cameo: Large apple. Mostly pink to red in color. Very crisp. Quite sweet. Dr. J. called this the best apple ever! Everyone loved it. 4.75 Apples
Empire: Light red to yellow green skin. Medium crisp, but kind of tasteless. Without the spiciness of the apples at Wellwood. 2.5 Apples.
Fuji: A small apple. Red and yellow. Tart with a dry, noticeable tannin after taste. 3.125 Apples.
Golden Delicious: Nice greenish color. Tart. Drying on tongue in finish. 3 Apples.
Goldrush: Yellow gold. With “blackheads” on skin. Large in size, almost like a softball. Tart—moving toward a Granny Smith. Texture, crisp like a pear. I really liked this one. 3.5 Apples
Nittany: Yellow with patches of pink. Lightly crisp. A hint of citrus. Knightsmama like this one. 3.167 Apples
Pink Lady: Red with yellow green. Shined up very pretty. Small in size. A subtle sweet taste. 3.5 Apples.
Red Delicious: A firm apple. Crisp, light tasting. Noticeable tannins. 3 Apples.
Rome: A beautiful, deep red apple. My favorite in looks. A bit soft. A nice mix of sweet and sour. Peel was chewy. Sour at finish. I liked it, but the family disagreed. 2.85 Apples.
Stayman: Deep red with green streaks. Baseball size. Slightly tart at finish. Maybe a bit soft in texture. Captain Crunch liked this one. 3.125 Apples.
Winesap: Deep red color. A little softer than others. Sweet but flavor doesn’t last. 2.4 Apples.
York: Pink color with some yellow. A bit firm. Sweet at first, then fades. Dr. J and Captain Crunch didn’t like it. 2.5 Apples.
|A Few of the 120,000 Trees at Hallabaugh Brothers|
So we really enjoyed the Cameo, Goldrush, and Pink Lady. Add Cortland and Honey Crisps to this list, and you have our favorite apples. I guess that is something to know. It sounds all silly and such, but this was a great activity and one that begins to open up a way to see and to think about America. I don’t know about you, but growing up I remember eating only Red Delicious apples; then somewhere along the way, I was shocked to learn about Granny Smiths. For many years, that was all I knew about. It seems that for all that we praise the lives of the Greatest Generation, they made some choices in culinary matters that reduced diversity. We know how following Prohibition only a few breweries dominated the market, and as time passed the number seemed to reduce, as mid-sized brewers lost out to the conglomerates. Didn’t the same thing happen to automobile makers? It seems apples followed the same trend. It is a great thing, now, to celebrate the return many varieties of apples that once were available before market efficiencies and standardized palettes accompanied us as we drifted into the suburbs. I look forward to learning what other varieties of apples—and other fruits and foodstuffs—catch our eye as we move down the road.
Soundtrack. Stevie Wonder: "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."
Soundtrack. Stevie Wonder: "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."