Finding Free Apples

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ILLUSTRATION: KIM ZARNEY
An abandoned orchard near their home provided the Fosketts with a cornucopia of free apples.

Above the 45th parallel
Clarksville, N.H.
Dear Ma:

Got to thinking of you … lent a copy of MOTHER EARTH NEWS to a local
game warden who told us about some peregrine falcons
nesting up here in the spring. Maybe he’ll write you, too.
It’s this kind of country: moose in the pasture, fox
running, great horned owl scaring the night and me with it,
dairy farmers, paternalistic old factories with non-caring
wages in an area where prices are as high as in high-income
regions. A place where we had a fight over our children’s
hair and they didn’t go to school for two months … and
where I taught swimming this summer to the same kids (and
loved them) that had taunted and tormented my kids. It’s a
country we’re trying to hold a piece of. We must be into
dream number 357 by now and still trying. If childhood is
the time you feel dreams will come true, then we’re still
young.

Sweat equity: We got some geese to protect the one hen left
from a raccoon banquet and they’re a delight … so we
bought some chicks to raise in the room where most of our
books are. Maybe this year our eggs won’t come to $10.00 a
dozen.

Our youngest son helped out a farmer, earned a Holstein
heifer he watched being born … and he’s still working to
pay for feeding her. She’s a week old and he’s nine. The
other boy is clearing three acres of woodlot to get $60.00
from the Agriculture Department. Our daughter is trying to
figure out ways to get a horse or two. (She can babysit
kids but prefers equines.)

The old man, 40, has been working in a factory for the past
few weeks … 50 hours excluding lunch and travel time. And
I’m home, hoping to substitute-teach during the sickness
season (December to May). Somehow we’ve managed to survive,
not too cleverly and not too philosophically. It’s grubby,
grinning survival, something I reckon we’ll be doing
forever. But I figure watching the sunset from our porch,
through tears, is an OK thing too.

And I’m into apples, partly because there’s a lesson to
learn from them.

When we moved to this north country last fall we were
excited to discover three apple trees in the hedgerow
behind the house. Much of the fruit was small and sour, but
they were there. Our very first priority in spring after
most of the snow melted (in the woods up here, in
June
, I went waist-high through the stuff to get to
marsh marigolds) was to prune the branches and to clear out
everything that kept the sun from shining in. And as we
watched our “orchard” over the summer we discovered that
the three trees were in fact three different varieties.
Then, on our treasure walks getting to know this mountain
fastness of ours, we discovered six more … too late to
prune, but in plenty of time to see them blossom and fruit.

The first full bearer was the one with the small sour
apples we’d tasted in the fall. There were lots of
pickings, still small and still sour, but without worms or
insects. Crab apples, a neighbor told me, and I felt
ridiculous. That’s why the fruit was unblemished: no room
for the worms to pucker in. Still, it’s nice to have one
crab apple tree … more than enough for us.

We went on to the rest of the orchard we’d discovered and
most of it had huge fruit–red, shiny and pure–
at the top . Because the trees had been crowded so
much by the surrounding foliage, they’d branched ever
upwards.

Gathering our three children and a wheelbarrow, with the
dog’s tail flagging our way down the pasture, we went to
pick. “It’ll take us ten minutes,” I told the youngsters.
We gathered all the low fruit–the little ones and the
green ones-but the sight of those big red apples way above
us was taunting. The bears would still have plenty to eat
if we took those high growers, we thought, though why we
were considering the bears’ bellies I don’t know … for
every apple we picked there were ten on the ground, and by
the time we left the tree that ratio would treble.

The first boy to go up decided that–rather than
harvest–it was better to enjoy the view or practice
his pitching. With a golden retriever dog along to pursue
the throws this was fun, but a loss in the apple
department. The second child tumbled fruit onto ground
which was protected by old tangled barbed wire and the
scratchy thickness of overcrowded pines. When the
third–oldest and heaviest–went up to weight
down a big limb I figured my 5’10” would stretch to the
sagging branch and I’d get what I could.

Over and over I kept the words coming: “Be careful. Be
careful.” I shook and picked. Said “Be careful” and reached
higher. Said “Be careful” and got banged in the eye. It
figured. Who was the one who cautioned everyone about bare
feet and nails in the barn … and then got the barn nail
in the bare foot? It figured, all right … after all, it
was me that ran down the grassy bank where the geese hang
out and slid for what seemed and felt like three wet green
miles. So the Great Cautioner was led home by the children,
blindly holding one tearing pained eye, with the other hand
resting on the shoulder of the kid pushing the wheelbarrow
of apples.

(I still have a black eye … but I also have a long
sapling with a toeless stocking tacked onto one end. I
reach up with my stick, tap the apple, and most of the time
it slides down the stocking into my hand or a catcher’s
mitt held by an apple-pickin’ buddy. If I get hit again
I’ll wear my husband’s old construction helmet.)

A wheelbarrow of apples doesn’t look like much,
particularly when it’s only one-quarter of one tree … and
the old man came home that night with an enormous burlap
bag full of fruit he’d picked on the way back from work.
“It’s a kind we don’t have,” he said. “For pie and
freezing.” (I have yet to find anyone up here who knows the
names of any variety except crab apples. Around this area,
apples sort of get called by what they’re used for.)

So we started on the easiest way to use what we’d
harvested: apple butter. The boy with the sharpest knife
cut up the fruit, leaving on the peels and cores but no
stems or leaves. We put 16 pounds (a mistake, eight would
have been better) into a big stainless steel pot …
aluminum and iron are no good for taste. We added water and
cider vinegar–cider or plain water work too, alone or
in any combination–to about one-third the depth of
the apples and cooked the mess until everything was mushy.
Then we let the pulp cool while we got out a big bowl, a
wooden spoon and a large strainer. Another mistake:
everything that shouldn’t be in apple butter–like
core bits and seeds–was sneaking through because,
with my determined effort to waste absolutely no apple mush
(not after all that work and a black eye too), I was
enlarging the holes in the sieve.

If you’re going to make apple butter, get a ricer … the
old-timey blender machine. You’ll soon master the knack of
the proper angle at which to hold it over the bowl so you
can avoid apple mush on the walls. (Old wooden walls come
into their own during canning season. For once you
appreciate their practical quality of absorbing family
stains, including those from temper tantrums. The splatters
don’t show unless they hit spider webs and then they’re
removed by the resident kitchen spiders, who are far more
meticulous at housekeeping than I am. But then I’ve yet to
see a web with a family of spiders in it. I love
the old beams in my kitchen even more now, although I was
getting tired of defending them.)

As you push cooked apples through a ricer, you scrape the
strained mush off the outside with a knife and put whatever
is left inside the strainer on the compost pile or
wherever. (Our dog digs the leftovers.) When all the pulp
has been ground, it goes back into the pot … but measure
it first. For each cup of strained apples you’ll add about
a half cup of sugar, white or brown. If you use honey
you’ll need one-third less of the sweetening.

Mix the developing apple butter well, put it over a high
flame, stir it a lot, bring it to a boil, lower the fire
and add your spices. I used eight tablespoons of cinnamon
and half as much allspice in my 16-pound batch. (The
seasoning was ground … if you use whole flavorings put
them in a bag. An old baby sock tied with cord is fine.) If
you like nutmeg add it at the very end of cooking, or the
flavor will be lost. Grate and mix in the yellow rind of
one lemon, then squeeze in the juice. Taste the butter
after five minutes and adjust the seasonings to your
liking.

Boil the mixture and stir it with a wooden paddle or spoon
until a blob of the product on a plate doesn’t have a ring
of water around it. This will take approximately an hour
… but test about half an hour after the boiling point is
reached, because a lot depends on the apples. (My first
batch cooked until 2 a.m.–while I read a good
book–and it’s as stiff as dried prunes, but
delicious.) Pour the spread into hot sterilized jars and
seal them with rubbers and tops, or with paraffin. If you
use wax, leave a half-inch space at the top so that you can
apply a quarter inch of paraffin one-eighth inch at a time.
If the wax is too hot the second time it won’t make a good
seal … melt and hold your paraffin liquid in a double
boiler only.

After blistering my fingers and failing into the fear trap
of recipes (I forgot the lesson I tried to teach my
daughter … that cooking rules are an alphabet and not the
whole language), I tightened up and almost quit on apples.
But there was fruit on the porch, plenty of it

What the kids weren’t nibbling every time they came through
the kitchen door, the dog was snatching while I was busy
chasing the geese. I conned my daughter into making a few
pies to freeze, but baking apple pies sends out vibes to
the world at large and the only way to save them for
stashing is to assemble them in the middle of the night. .
. alone.

By now one of the boys was in a contest with himself to
gather apples from the highest branches of all the trees.
Bloody and grinning, he added to the supply. With all that
fruit on the porch and lots on the limbs, I really got into
apples.

You can pickle apples, freeze them, dry them, make them
into jam, jelly, applesauce or just about anything … and
they taste good mixed with other fruit. You can even make
your own vinegar by placing the cores and peels, bruised
parts and dropped apples gathered from the ground into a
crock and covering them with water. Put a lid on the
container and leave the mess to work itself into vinegar.
(Keep adding fruit and water.) The foam on the top–called
“mother”–is what you put into any cider you’ve made
that you also want to turn into vinegar quickly.

Apples have a high pectin content (that’s what makes jams
and jellies stay together later on when you open the jar)
so you don’t have to buy the stuff in the stores when you
make your own sweets. Just cook the fruit along with the
cores and peels (where the highest pectin level is found).

Apple jelly (a good base for herb jellies like mint and
chamomile and rose hip) is made the same way as apple
butter except that you use water or cider for liquid, but
no vinegar … and you push the pulp through a jelly bag
instead of a ricer. The lower end of an old flannel pajama
leg, with the bottom well sewn together and the top (where
the knee was) closed with a drawstring, does fine. Wet the
bag, put the mush in and let it drip into a pot while you
go and do something else. What’s left in the cloth can
become apple butter with the addition of water, spices,
sugar and vinegar, and the juice itself is cooked with
sweetening (about 60% juice and 40% sugar) until the
mixture thickens.

Another good thing about apples is that they can be held in
the cellar while you go ahead with other jobs that can’t
wait … like putting in doors and windows. Apples, in
fact, are fine fruit in just about every way.

When an 87-year-old woman came to visit not too long ago,
she mentioned our apple trees. Seventy-five years ago she
used to nibble their fruit, and when she was
married–in the room we call the kitchen–there
was apple pie from those same branches. The trees were here
before she was born … they should be here after I die.
There are abandoned orchards left all over this region and
they’re still beautiful. Next year they’ll bloom again
after bearing another winter’s snows and I’ll learn even
more … and, yesterday–in the incredible abundance
of this land–I discovered seven red plum trees!

To all of you, all over, a happy harvest. Peace, dear
friends.

Sini Foskett