In Michigan, the apple orchards welcomed us kids with open arms, or so it seemed. There were tall cornstalks and Indian corn, an array of brilliant pumpkins and bales of hay lining the pathway to the cider mill. Yellow jackets buzzed around, drawn just like us to the abundance of sugars. We would watch the apples get ground and pressed into a pulpy mess between burlap-lined wooden, slatted trays. The sweet tang of the unpasteurized elixir was nature’s finest; we drank it hot and spicy or ice-cold. Close by was the worn white wooden stand where we would line up to choose plain or cinnamon sugar donuts. Their rich aroma made us instantly ravenous.
But the best part was scrambling atop the hay-laden wagons pulled by tractors. We were taken deep into the gnarly trees, the orchard. We piled out and stepped around the downed fruit that imbued the sharp, bright air with a heavy fermenting sweetness. Our parents let us roam. We jumped and climbed for the good apples, the round, red, yellow, and green globes that tantalized from the higher branches. As we gathered, we checked for worms or softness of bruises and placed each apple into baskets we carried. The wind whipped our hair and fingers got chilled, but that first bite of a crisp Red Delicious picked from a tree was like a gift to the tongue. The ride back, hay sticking in our hair and socks, was quieter as we held on tightly to our heavy loads. We knew there would be time for one last greasy donut and a hot cup of cider, the steam drifting about our noses, before we hit the road. And there would be Dutch apple pie after dinner the next day, with more desserts to come.
Now we live in the Pacific Northwest, in Portland, where cabbages are grown for decoration in yards and cider comes from a gallon jug. Over twenty years ago we looked for places like those of our childhoods. We didn’t find anything quite the same, although we have made the pastoral “fruit loop” drive east of Portland more than once. But there are delicious, bountiful apples here and we anticipate them each fall.
On Saturday when we awakened, the view from the window held rain-thickened clouds, like a grey cottony batting that had absorbed all the moisture from the Columbia River or the Pacific. The October sky let loose a few times as we prepared for our annual foray to the Portland Nursery Apple Festival. We pulled on raincoats under which were layered shirts and sweatshirts. Our waterproof hiking boots had finally been taken out of the closet a week before. Then suddenly, sunlight dazzled; I reached for my sunglasses and unzipped my coat. Ahhh. Autumn in our lovely Oregon.
By the time we arrived, the sky was trying hard for a cheerful blue. The freshened air had that familiar nip. We strode through the gates towards large wooden boxes that held the forty varieties of apples we had come to admire and select to take home. In a tent at the back of the nursery, there were fifty-five varieties, all from Washington and Oregon, for taste testing, but we like getting up close to the mounds of fruit, smoothing brightly hued skins and sniffing the subtle perfumes.
As if their comeliness is not enough, the names of apples are enough for me to swoon. Please note these few: Orleans Reinette, Elstar, Ginger Golden, Ambrosia, Red Winesap; Splendour, Newton Pippin, White Winter Pearmain, Yellow Bellflower. My husband chose Golden Russet, Spitzenberg. I chose Ozark Gold and Honey Crisp. And threw in a couple of tantalizing Cascade pears, as the sign promised its juice would casade down my chin.
Today I discovered that if you got an aerial photograph of an apple tree, it would seem transformed by its similar features into a rose bush, and that a rosehip’s design reflects that of an apple. I was informed by the gentleman at the information desk that an apple is, in fact, part of the rose family. I can certainly understand this–their shared forms, inescapable attractiveness, and a penchant for making the beholder (or eater–have you ever tried fresh rose ice cream? Compare this to warm apple crisp and tell me which is better!) deeply appreciative. A congenial, humble, yet beguiling relative.
We listened to a live band (which reminded us of klezmer music but was billed as a bohemian cabaret ensemble) and we savored apple strudel. I watched children scamper, including a giggling little girl who climbed right into a big apple bin before her mother found her out. It was good to absorb the happiness around us. Rain clouds scudded across the blue sky as people sat on hay bales and sipped cider, lingered over caramel apples. We wandered and ate and felt nostalgic until the wind got an edge to it and the rain moved close once more.
It is likely we will bake very little now that our children are grown, but freshly sliced apples on a plate are all we need for dessert tonight. Afterall, an apple is–remarkably and wonderfully–a rose, just one more Northwest beauty.