When I bought my house 20 plus years ago, I hadn’t actually been in the structure. In fact the only time I had even been on the property was ages earlier, when as a child, I had decided that I wanted to meet the man who was raising bees in an ancient collection of hives and had three enormous apple trees. I had always told my family, or whoever was in the car as we drove past his hedges, that when I grew up I wanted to own the Bee Man’s house. In retrospect I find it fascinating that I had the hubris to walk up to a stranger’s front door and knock on it in full expectation of getting a tour, but it was a different time, and I really wanted to know what it was like to raise bees. Plus I think my parents must have encouraged me.
It was an awkward conversation. The gentleman didn’t have a lot of experience with precocious children, and I was used to having adults think me charming, something this gentleman obviously wasn’t feeling about the little blonde at his door. I don’t remember much about our conversation, other than speaking about the mint that was growing all over his property, and his telling me his frustration that when you bought packages of peppermint, many of the seeds were actually for spearmint instead. At the time I wasn’t as knowledgeable of the differences in mint as I now am, and I call vividly recall chewing the pungent leaves he handed me and thinking that what he was calling spearmint, didn’t really taste the same as the Doublemint gum that was my only other spearmint taste comparison. I can still feel the fuzzy buzz of the leaves against my tongue, and to this day associate the taste of spearmint with a general sense of awkward anxiousness and a need to please.
I think he showed me his bees and we must have spoken about the apples, because before I bought the property I knew that the biggest tree actually had two different varieties of apples, one of which was a clear, yellow, sweet fruit and that the first tree was created with many grafts, all of which were of the same apple, just cut from one side of the tree and grafted to the other. At the time I thought it was a peculiar thing to do, to graft branches of a tree back onto itself, and although I now understand that he was just experimenting and playing, I vividly remember wanting to understand his motivation, but being too scared to ask. He must have told me what the various names of the apples were, but I didn’t carry that knowledge forward. I wish I knew now, but I’m afraid I have no clue. All I know now is that I have one of the largest apple trees in the area, and when fall comes, I have way too many apples rolling around the lawn.
Too many apples doesn’t sound like a terrible problem does it? A surplus bounty of deliciousness, shouldn’t make you crazy, but trust me it does. As I too, raise bees, each year my apple trees are loaded, and there are way more apples than I can make into pies, applesauce and dumplings, crumbles, smoothies and juice. I am an apple butter queen, it’s deeply fabulous, but I still have tons left over from last years harvest, and each day more and more fruits fall to the ground. Fruits that I just can’t pick up fast enough. It’s a Sisyphean process, the picking up of apples from the lawn. I pick them all up in buckets, gathering all the ones that are still fit to eat in piles on the front porch while the rest get dumped into the compost pile. If I don’t get them fast enough, the wasps and hornets find them and feast upon their sweet nectar. There is nothing quite like stepping on an apple satiated hornet with your bare foot, trust me it’s an experience you’d like to avoid. Both my dogs and myself have suffered the nasty biting pain of a stinger in the toe, and so we always have a good supply of Benadryl stocked up for the fall.
Worse of all, I soon have too many apples to be able to process them properly. So I start to give them away. I start leaving them on friends’ stoops, and then on acquaintances’ stoops, soon start thinking about leaving them on strangers’ front steps. And then I start throwing perfectly fine apples away. The compost pile becomes a pungent, apple cider vinegar smelling mess and I feel guilty, it’s such a waste. I send out emails to people who like to bake. “It’s apple pie season,” the subject reads, “come on over.” And I start to fall behind. There are just too many. Before I had a deer fence, I used to come home to herds hanging out beneath the trees, mothers, daughters, nephews and aunts all feasting, wet juices running down their chins. And I was grateful for their voracious appetites. Now maybe I should put them out on the road in baskets with a sign that reads “free” like the abandoned sofas and broken furniture that I sometimes spot lounging on the edge of people’s driveways.
The worst part is that they’re not really pretty apples, so people are hesitant to accept them. The clear yellow ones are super juicy and sweet but every year they’re spotted with a strange case of red freckles. Of all my apples, they would be the most visually acceptable to those you claim to like apples, but the measles make people nervous, we’ve all become too accustomed to perfect looking fruits. The rest have rough skins, and brown sides, that look unappetizing, but are the best apples I’ve ever worked with as a cook (thus my amazing apple butter) and are actually my preferred eating fruits. The taste of these apples is richer, more complex and for me, more rewarding to eat. They call apples that have this kind of skin russets. Russets are amazing apples, they last longer than most apples and their flavors are prized by fruit connoisseurs. Most modern apples have had the russet bred out of them, along with their richer, denser flesh, as the modern shopper prefers a shiny apple with a cruncher bite.
Call me old fashioned, but I wouldn’t trade my apples for the store bought variety any day, but it does mean that each time I hand them over I have to give a little history lesson on the perils of modern shipping techniques for heritage flavors. Sometime people listen and sometimes people smile at me like I’m a little crazy. That’s fine, we already know I’m a little crazy, but it doesn’t mean I’m not right about the apples. Don’t believe me? Feel free to stop by and grab a couple of the fruits off my front tree and try them yourself. Actually while you’re at the house why don’t you take as many apples as you can. And take a few for your friends too, and for any strangers you might know, or anyone you might know who has room on their front steps for a bushel of apples or two. Or three. Please. My compost pile is already really, really full.
Paige Patterson wishes she had are many figs as she has apples, but has yet to succeed in getting them to bare any fruit.