An Apple a Day
THE apple orchard, when I was a little girl in Southern Michigan, was as much an accepted corollary of the farm as the meadow. Farmers did not go in for apple raising as a commercial enterprise. Shipping facilities were limited, and no particular study had been given to apples as a commercial fruit. Everybody had them.
My mother, whose mind sometimes took a fanciful turn for all her practicality, loved the orchard from the first red bud which showed among the young green leaves to the last frostbitten fruit falling from its rimed branch, and was much diverted by the mellifluous and sometimes romantic names by which they were known. My father, being something of a gourmet, found more pleasure in contemplating the aromatic odor of an Early Harvest as suitable timber for a green-apple pie.
I too hold in memory the rich lusciousness of that queen of desserts, but I partook sufficiently of my mother’s more poetic nature to find myself remembering the fragrant sweetness of the bridal bloom and, later, the rich, heady odor of ripening fruit. Hours of childish leisure savoring one ambrosial offering after another, lying full length upon the grass where windfalls spent their opulence, or harbored for hours in some accommodating crotch where the view laid upon the mind unerasable pictures of the various kinds of apples that grew in our orchard — shape of tree, feel of bark, texture of leaf, fragrance of bloom, contour of fruit, and every shade and hue of the varying degrees of color in which they were dressed.
The Early Harvest was the first to lend spice and variety, both as ‘sauce’ for the table and in green-apple pie. Now a green-apple pie along in summer after you had had your fill of custard because eggs were plentiful, and especially if yours was the kind of cuisine where dried apples filled in that dismal period between the last of the Baldwins and the first of the Early Harvests, was a matter for benediction. But it is so long since I have set my yearning teeth into a green-apple pie such as were known to my youth that I falter before the contemplation of even the memory lest I be overcome with nostalgia. To buy green apples from the market and blend them, although according to measurement and rule, with spices and sugar, flour and lard, is but to court discontent. The apples lack in crispness and in flavor. The lard does not come out of a crock in the cellar. The flour is ground from wheat grown God knows where. The whole is combined in a state of doubt and by a hand lacking the skill acquired in loving service. What, one asks, can be expected from such poor incipience, and for what, one must conclude, may one hope? The answer is, Alas!
The Early Harvest tree was found in every orchard, large or small. The fruit was yellow; not a thick speckled yellow, — like the Punkin Russet, for instance, — but clear and pale, almost transparent. The flesh was juicy and tender. The green fruit was quite tart, but as it ripened it became better for eating than for cooking.
Following closely upon the Early Harvest came the Red Astrachan, a gentle and beautifully cultured daughter of Pomona flaunting gypsy dress — a Roman veil of crimson stripes over a yellow slip, all misted in bluish bloom.
Then there was the Seek-No-Further — a lovely name, an apple lovely as its name. It is many years since I have even seen a Seek-No-Further tree, but I well remember the way it grew — a well-rounded, low-boughed tree, sturdy and vigorous. And although I have no recollection of having seen or tasted the fruit in an equal number of years, and do not know whether it is still grown in Southern Michigan, I can visualize the apple perfectly — roundish in form, with a somewhat tough skin, greenish yellow in color, wearing a top skirt of bright red which, when rubbed against your sleeve or skirt, took on a fine bright polish. When you bit into it the meat was just a little yellow, but nice and crisp, breaking off in neat chunks with a fine crunch to them, juicy and tart.
But the Seek-No-Further was only one in an opulent roster of names that enrich the memory of one whose early days were blessed, amid a wealth of country sights, sounds, odors, and tastes, with the living friendliness of an orchard.
By late September the different varieties of early fall apples were coming on. One that I remember with keenest pleasure was what we called the Greasy Pippin. There is, it seems, quite a large Pippin family — the word meaning a pip or seed. A Pippin, then, originally meant a seedling, and there are, by name, the Newton Pippin, the Fall Pippin, the Missouri Pippin, and innumerable other progeny. Nowhere, however, can I find reference to any of such questionable origin as one might suspect from the descriptive term ‘Greasy Pippin.’
This was quite a good-sized apple, with a rind thin but tough (with teeth and tongue you could do a pretty thorough job of skinning), pale greenish yellow in color; and the skin was decidedly greasy — although I suppose the horticulturist would refer to it as waxy — to the touch. The flesh was yellowish, tender, and very juicy, and made excellent sauce and grand pie before the fruit got too ripe. The apple bruised easily, and when very ripe fell to the ground with a wet sort of plop — and squashed. When buckwheat was planted in the orchard and the apples fell upon the stubble, they would often lie there pierced to the core by the stalks, their honeyed juices exuding for the delectation of bees.
Another favorite of those days — but whether for actual flavor or because of its name I do not know — was the Maiden Blush. This was a handsome apple, clad in a mantle of greenish yellow, with, as one would expect, a fine healthy flush on one cheek. It was good for cooking, but not for keeping; housewives favored it for drying, since the flesh was tender and juicy.
I am inclined to pass over the entire subject of drying — and dried — apples with the same tactful disregard which I have sometimes shown to other unlikely subjects — as, for instance, tripe. Still, the housewives of my childhood’s day did dry apples. Even my own mother, who had a high regard for the flavor and excellence of all food, did, in her day, stoop to that ignoble economy. Hour after hour which, to my father’s mind and mine, might have been spent in any one of a dozen more profitable ways, she would sit and peel, quarter, and core apples for drying — perfectly good apples that might better have been eaten fresh, as they stood, and then remembered for what they were.
But no! Peeled they must be, cored, quartered, and flung into cold water — not to be washed, I think, for what was a little unnecessary laving now, fresh from the impregnable protection of skin, as against the days of slow drying in a hazardous exposure to dust, and worse?
But washed they were, and then strung by darning needle and cord into long dangling ropes which were hung over the stove, behind the stove, in the sun, wherever they would dry. When, finally, the shrunken sections resembled nothing so much as a bit of chewed, spewed, and dried leather, they were stripped from the cord, stored in cloth bags, and slung to nails in the garret against that unhappy day when the last apple in the bin, the last in the apple hole outside, were gone, and a withered, insipid, soulless substitute must take their place.
Stewed, as in sauce, this unsavory impostor was sometimes bolstered up by a slice of lemon in an attempt to delude the hankering appetite, but with vain result.
My father hated dried apples — as all right-minded people should — and would have no part in their preparation. He disliked seeing my mother spend pleasant hours in what he called a wicked waste, to make something that he declared a hog would n’t eat.
‘But,’ contended my mother, ‘we can’t use the apples now — and they won’t keep. Come spring we shan’t have any. Ain’t dried apples better’n none?’
‘No,’ replied my father promptly, ‘not by a jugful. Nothin’ is better’n a dried apple’ — a statement literally meant.
One day while the orgy of apple drying was at its height, Father came home from town bringing a supposedly timesaving contrivance which you fastened to the edge of the table, and on a fork of which you impaled an apple; then you turned a crank and a projecting knife did the peeling. He amused himself for a while experimenting with the thing, and to his surprise found that it worked better than he expected. Barring a few instances when the apple split and went on the floor, or when he managed to cut his finger on the blade, the contraption seemed to go very well, and he was quite pleased with himself for the discovery. Not content, however, with a reasonable success, he must try it on turnips and potatoes. The blade skipped and jumped. Attempting to hold the object under abuse by main strength, he dislodged the machine from the table. It fell to the floor, striking his most susceptible toe, and was promptly kicked across the room.
‘Tarnation fool thing!’ he exploded, and laid the blame, as usual, on my mother. ‘ If you was n’t everlastingly tryin’ to do what the neighbors do,’ he thundered, ‘I would n’t of got it. Dryin’ apples because Mis’ Bouldry does!’
My mother took up her pan and knife and proceeded to peel, quarter, and core her apples, after the usual custom. ‘I’ve dried apples,’ she said tranquilly, ‘ever since before Mis’ Bouldry moved into the neighborhood. And I’ve peeled ’em with a knife and I’m goin’ to keep on.’
Our lack of enthusiasm for dried apples, however, finally convinced my mother of the futility of her effort, especially when my father declared that he would rather have ‘an old frozen apple ’t had laid under the snow till spring ’n a dried apple any day.’
The sweet apples that came along in late summer and fall have a decidedly fragrant place in the orchard of my memory. Sweet Bough was the earliest of these. That was the tree that grew nearest the house, and when the apples were fully ripe you would sometimes hear them dropping in the night. It would be in the first hour before sleep when all was very still, so you could hear the guttural drumming of old Juga-rum down on the river bank and a forehanded cricket feebly predicting an early fall. And then, all of a sudden — ker-plop! And you knew another Sweet Bough had grown too heavy for its parent stem — honeyed food for ants and bees.
Then there were Pound Sweets, better baked than raw, and the Tolman Sweet, latest of all and cherished for its excellent amalgamating qualities, being of a temper that harmonized well with quince, the combination being one of the favorite preserves for our table.
Bellflower and Gillyflower — ah, the Black Gillyflower, an apple that may be, for all I know, entirely extinct. A strange and foreign-looking fruit, conical in shape, with a deeply indented and wrinkled nose, and rather dry, the flesh growing mealy as it ripened. But a handsome fruit withal — purple rather than black, an effect gained by a wash of deep red over green and a dark blue bloom.
Greenings, Russets, Jonathans, Rambos, Snow! Time was when I thought the Snow apple, as once grown in Southern Michigan, was unexcelled as an eating apple except by what seemed to us then the queen of all apples, the Northern Spy. We could hardly wait for the Snow apple to ripen, so beautiful it was to gather — a rich red skin with pure white flesh often veined with crimson threads. It was a tender, juicy, delicious apple, but not much good for cooking. Certainly the Snow apple was one of the Michigan orchard’s favorites of that day, and yet I do not find it listed as Snow apple at all, but as only one of a great variety under the general family name of Fameuse. I think even then farmers sometimes called it ‘Famous.’
Greenings, Spitzenburgs, and Baldwins were the late fall apples, the first two lasting until late winter and good for both cooking and eating; the last, then as now, the staple for keeping qualities.
Early winter apples were kept in bins or barrels in the cellar, but — at least by my father — the late winter apples were buried in an ‘apple hole’ outside, as were vegetables. The pit was dug near the house where the ground was mellow, and lined with straw. Then the apples were put in, covered with straw and earth, and finally with the blanket of snow that was the best protection of all. Late in winter you went out and dug away the snow and frozen earth, clawed down into the straw, and brought out fresh, cold, crisp apples.
Take a pan of those on a snappy evening, along with a pitcher of cider and a plate of friedcakes, and sit down by the stove, — or maybe to a game of pitch or euchre when the neighbors drop in, — and who could ask for better entertainment?
I aim to tell of certain apple dishes that came out of that old bee-laden, fragrant orchard, dishes that even a modern cook might concoct, but I despair of bringing before you with clarity of word sufficient for emulation that best of all desserts — apple pie. For only the born cook can make an apple pie, and even the born cook must know her apples before she can translate them into that luscious triumph.
That is one great advantage of owning an orchard. You start at birth, practically, to understand apples, and can proceed in what you might call apple-pie order, straight through the season from Early Harvests on until you reach that sublime pie timber — the Northern Spy.
With such an honorable succession as this at hand, with flour in a barrel, lard in a crock, sugar and spice in the butt’ry, a woman does, of course, have a handicap over the apartment dweller who buys four pounds of apples for a quarter, depending upon the grocery clerk’s judgment as to their quality, and is beaten before she starts. The only way to ensure perfect success is to own an orchard. The matter of flour and lard can be taken care of more easily, although we do recommend a hog or two, to make certain not only of proper shortening, but also of a sparerib to precede the pie.
However, and although we do for the moment despair of tasting that rarest of all perfections, a greenapple pie at its best, we might expect even from the average cook some measure of palatable pleasure in the lesser combinations of the same ingredients. Take, for instance, an Apple Dowdy. The Apple Dowdy, now, is a homely dish; and while the rule for apple pie is more or less static, although governed by individual artistry, that for a Dowdy is variable. But because of such allowable indulgence let no one think that any old appleand-dough mixture can be thrown together and bring forth an Apple Dowdy. The intrepid Mrs. Rorer, now, assembles a mixture of apples and bread crumbs and calls that a Dowdy. To my mind this is infringing upon the rights of an Apple Betty. The Dowdy that I favor is composed of a bed of thinly sliced apples, spiced and sweetened, enriched with butter and counterpaned with an enscrolled circlet of dough that will flake at a touch when baked. The principle would seem to be that of a pie — and the surmise would be not far wrong. The difference lies in the depth of the bed, and in a thicker and less short crust. Also, you might season with nutmeg or allspice, instead of cinnamon, if you want to go this far. The length of time for the baking differs with the period in which the recipe was written. One old one, devised when a woman gave freely of her time and her heart to the art of cooking, calls for three hours in the oven! But as women ‘came out of the kitchen,’ the recipe weakened. The other day I talked with a woman (a good cook, too) who actually had the effrontery to tell me that her Apple Dowdy calls for a deep layer of apples, a biscuit crust, and thirty minutes’ baking! The Apple Dowdy, alas, has finally succumbed to the times. However, if there are any lovers of good Dowdy left, bake it at least an hour, very slowly, and when you serve it, cut a wedge of crust from the top and lay it on the plate upside down. On this, spoon some of the apple and syrup. Serve with cream, or a nutmeg sauce.
If the Apple Dowdy went pretty well, you might try your hand at an Apple Frump. We are now, as you can plainly see, dealing with the bourgeois among apple desserts. An Apple Frump is in reality but a whit less attractive in appearance than an Apple Dowdy. In fact, appearance has little to do with it (and so has the name), but a Frump might be recommended for wash days while the Dowdy could be moved up to cleaning days.
To make the Frump you put a layer of buttered and browned bread crumbs in the bottom of a baking dish — the same, indeed, that you used for the Dowdy. On these you place hot stewed apple — sliced apple, that is, stewed until tender, sweetened with brown sugar, and spiced with nutmeg or cinnamon, with the juice of one lemon added. Over the apple sprinkle a layer of seeded raisins, and on top of all put slices of bread, trimmed and generously buttered on both sides. Set this in the oven until the bread is well toasted. Serve with or without cream.
And now, just to make both Frump and Dowdy feel at home, let us have an Apple Fool. For this you simply bake some tart apples — according to the number you want to serve — and, while they are hot, remove pulp from skin with a fork. Mix one-half tablespoonful of confectioner’s sugar, the raw yolk of one egg, and one small individual sponge cake or lady finger to each cup of the pulp, and beat all these together. Finally rub this through a coarse sieve and put in a baking dish in which it can be served. Whip the whites of eggs to a meringue, spread evenly over the Fool, and place it in the oven to brown. Serve warm or cool — not hot — with cream.
Having thus disposed of the more plebeian members of the Apple Dessert tribe (of which there are something less than nine hundred and ninety-nine, which shows you what an orchard could do for you), we will step up a limb or two into the Dumpling Class.
As between a Dowdy and a Dumpling — baked or steamed — there is what might not perhaps be called a far cry, but something of a cry nevertheless, or at least a yelp. An Apple Dumpling is a mysterious affair.
(Turning the Dumpling ’round, rejoined the King.) ‘’T is most extraordinary, then, all this is.
It beats Penetti’s conjuring all to pieces;
Strange I should never of a Dumpling dream!
But, Goody, tell me, where’s the seam?’
‘Sire, there’s no seam,’ quoth she: ‘I never knew
That folks did Apple Dumplings sew.’
‘No?’ cried the staring Monarch with a grin,
‘How, then, how then the devil got the Apple in?‘
An apple dumpling, after an apple pie, was my father’s favorite apple dish, and he preferred his boiled. Moreover, he wanted individual dumplings boiled in a flannel cloth. An old English cookbook, whose contents afford me much pleasure, in giving a recipe for boiled dumplings suggests that knitting the squares in which such dumplings are to be made will provide pleasant — and useful — occupation for a lady’s leisure, and will give the puddings a ‘very handsome appearance.’
My mother, never having heard of such employment for her leisure, had to rely upon any old piece of flannel at hand. She did, however, wash and preserve her pudding bags after the manner of any thrifty housewife. Once, in acceding to my father’s sudden request for boiled dumplings, she faced disaster: the pudding squares could not be found! Nor could a single piece of any kind of white wool whatever. The apples were peeled and cored, and anyone versed in apple lore knows that an apple once peeled must be used immediately to preserve both color and flavor. And not a piece of flannel to be found! Even the last of the only old flannel sheet in the house was gone.
My father, never far distant from the scene of action when one of his favorite dishes was in preparation, stood watching my mother’s frantic search in a fever of anxiety.
‘Ain’t you got nothin’ you can sew a dumpling into?’ he inquired impatiently.
‘I can’t find a thing!’ Desperation tinged my mother’s voice. ‘And I can’t see where the pudding cloths —‘
A spasm as of shocked recollection crossed my father’s face. His mouth fell open. He leaned on the table.
‘Have you done anything with ’em?‘ Quick to discern his passing moods, my mother flung a suspicious eye his way.
‘If they was pudding bags,’ the guilty voice admitted, ‘why, I — one day I wanted to clean my gun —‘
‘’Lije Thompson, you’re enough to kill a saint!’ My mother glared at him wrathfully. ‘Now there’s nothin’ to do but bake ’em. And serve you right.’
‘Wait a minute!’ Fired with sudden inspiration, he fled the room. Mother proceeded to roll and cut her dough. An apple — cored and its centre filled with mingled cinnamon and sugar and topped with butter — was placed in each square of dough, the corners brought, together, the seams flattened, patted into shape.
The door burst open and my father returned, his white fringe of hair flying, his eyes alight.
‘Here!’ He held aloft a garment, spread it out. ‘Here’s a pair of my old drawers,’ he said triumphantly. ‘The seat’s all wore out anyway. Can’t you use these? They’re flannel, and they’re clean! ’
My mother snatched the garment from his hand and flung it on to a chair. ‘I’m goin’ to patch those,’ she said tartly, ‘and you’re goin’ to wear ’em till spring. You’ll eat your dumplings baked.’
And he did, with nice hot lemon sauce — a not too great strain on even an impetuous man’s disposition, although I cannot vouch for the results, since the rule for a boiled pudding differs from that of one to be baked. Moreover, the boiled dumpling calls for a brandy sauce, which may account for some prejudice in its favor.
By no means is the subject exhausted. Pies, Puddings, Dowdys, Dumplings, Frumps, Fools, Tarts, Nests — in almost limitless succession the luscious list runs on. But when all is said and done the best way to eat an apple is to eat it raw, sitting, if you can, on the ground underneath the tree on which it grew, or, if you are still able, in a crotch of limbs suited to your form. A late October day is recommended, with blue sky, warm sun, air a pure distillation of fruity harvest. Or a day later in winter, with fruit from the apple hole outside the door, where snow and straw and good sweet earth have preserved the flavor in its finest form.
And next to the apple in its natural state comes apple pie — apple pie and a piece of nice mild American cheese. But, while you may find the apple and the cheese, where will you find the pie? Such pie as my mother — and probably your mother — made.
I cannot even tell you how my mother made her pie, for she had neither measuring spoon nor cup. If you had tried to pin her down to directions she would have told you that she never measured anything. And yet the fact is that she made more accurate measurements by far than most modern cooks will do with all the paraphernalia at hand. Her measurements were of touch and sight, guided by long experience, — a most unsafe rule for the beginner in cookery, — and by high standards of excellence. All I know about her method is that she took flour from a barrel, lard from a crock, a little salt from a jar, and blended them together into a rich crumbly mass. Then she poured water into it from a cup until she had enough. But only the ‘ born cook’ would know when there was enough.
After the merest tossing together of ingredients on a floured board, she broke off a portion and rolled it out to exactly the right thickness, swept it deftly up with her rolling pin to fit the tin, patted it down with her fingers, and cut off the overhanging edges with a knife. She peeled her apples as she used them, peeled, quartered, and sliced them into the waiting crust; filled the tin to a rounded nicety, pocked it over with cinnamon, butter, and sugar; rolled out the other piece of dough, and with a swirl and a dash cut an S-shaped scroll in the centre, flipped it over the pie, pinched down the edges with a capable thumb, and consigned it to the oven. Its exit from that fervored cavern was heralded by the fragrance which preceded it, growing in grace as amalgamated fruit, spice, and sugar were blended together into one harmonious and odorous whole.
The pie was made early in the morning and eaten for dinner at noon, not hot, but by no means cold, fresh and reeking with honeyed sweet. It followed upon a meal sufficiently lacking in solidarity to warrant generous appreciation of its parts, and it was accompanied by cheese, a mild, pliable cheese of velvety texture, primrose in color, faintly reminiscent of rennet and stony-cool dairies, and served to the table in a goodly wedge with a knife to cut it.
My mother always cut the pie in half. One half was then divided into thirds, one of which fell to my share, one my mother took. The other half was cut in two, and one piece was deposited on my father’s plate; nearly a fourth of the wedge of cheese followed it. As the knife slid its pliant way through the tender crust little creamy flakes thin as a moth’s wing broke from the parent crust, too well related to the whole to drop away, too delicate in texture for blind adherence, while in its wake the golden syrup made a liquid thread of amber sweet.
My father savored his pie leisurely, sniffing it at first lest he miss any delectable portion of its honeyed mead, however small. He ate with his knife and fitted it to his lips with a nicety unbelievable in modern dictatorial etiquette. The first quarter he ate without comment, giving himself wholly to the sensuous delight of zestful appetite; the second, to which he helped himself with leisurely contemplation of its grace, being now, as you might say, in a more discerning mood.
‘These Greenings,’ he once observed critically, ‘make a pretty good pie, ’Miry, but they don’t come up to a Spy. I ’ll get you some Spies tomorrow.’
‘I had n’t meant to make a pie tomorrow,’ my mother observed, tentatively. ‘I’m going to wash quilts and I thought we could get along.’
My father”s eyes reflected shocked amaze.
‘No pie?’ Aggrieved dissentience thinned his voice. ‘You’ve made pies before now on wash day, ain’t you?’
‘Yes,’ agreed my mother, contentiously, ‘I have. But I’m going to do extra washing to-morrow. You can eat spice cake.’
Silently my father returned to consideration of the present. A third of the second half still remained.
‘Ain’t either of you goin’ to finish it up?’ he inquired solicitously. We shook our heads. ‘Might’s well eat it,’ my mother told him — as he had expected she would. ‘Apple pie ain’t fit to use after it’s stood.’
And so the pie was finished. The last rich drops of syrup were spooned from the tin, the last downy flake of crust knifed from the pan, and the wedge of cheese was gone. Coffee cups and milk mug were drained.
My father drew back from the table with a gesture of fulfillment seldom allotted to mortal man.
‘Pretty good pie,’ he admitted with a last judicial lick of the lips, ‘but I’ll get you some Spies for to-morrow.‘