Apples. Have they been with us since the beginning of time? If you believe the story of Adam and Eve, then they were here before we were, since quite a few years pass between the time a seed is planted and the time a good apple can be plucked from the tree’s branches and eaten.
I love growing apples. Every year I put a quart by for each winter week. When I was young, I pledged to avoid insecticides and poisons. In my early gardens, compost and manure worked well, maybe even better, but with fruits, it was said, it was hard to avoid using chemicals—if you didn’t spray, the fruit wouldn’t be worth eating. Well, in the various places where I’ve lived over the past 40 years, I’ve been host to any number of apple trees. Some wild, some cultivated, most of the trees yielded apples with holes, blemishes, rust, and sad deformities. Still, I’ve never sprayed a single tree. Nevertheless, I’ve been blessed with a ready supply of apples and applesauce, especially applesauce.
The two trees I now harvest are big, maybe 20 or more feet tall, gnarled and bent, yet veteran producers. The apples on the tree to the south are ready for picking in August. They’re deformed, wormy, and green, showing only a hint of blush when ripe. The apples to the north come later, in late September. These are also lopsided, a little wormy, but a faded red, the color of my late husband’s 1948 Farmall. If I bite into a ripe apple from either of these trees, I might as well have chomped down on a lemon. A sour, puckering face results, the bitter fruit cast away. An apple only a mother could love.
Over the years I’ve discovered that these unsightly, unappetizing apples make great applesauce. Apparently the heat of the cooking brings out the sugar in the fruit. The key is that they’re unsprayed, pure. I need add nothing. My trees are so tall that I have to rely on drops, which reduces the harvest; falling from such a height, some of them land bruised. But a lot of them survive, so I go out and pick up what I can from the ground into buckets, baskets, and canvas totes. Sometimes I ask a tall friend to wield the apple harvester—a metal basket held aloft on a pole—and bring down more, usually a couple of bushels.
In the kitchen, I cut the apples, washed but skins on, into quarters and put them into a big kettle, appreciating the vast colors of their skins against the whiteness of their flesh, cutting away blemishes as I work. The quarters quickly fill the kettle. Into the bottom of the pot, I pour a cup or so of unsweetened cranberry juice (it adds color and keeps the bottom pieces from burning). I push a cinnamon stick into the pile and turn on the heat. When I hear a little activity in there, I turn the heat down and keep it at a low boil. In an hour or so, the entire pot has been reduced to a bubbling mush and the kitchen a fragrant heaven. I turn off the heat. When it’s cool, I put the mush into the mill. I turn the crank. Sauce oozes out, leaving the cores, seeds, and skins in the strainer. A surprisingly rosy, organic, all-natural (not to mention free) applesauce falls into the bowl. It’s a kind of alchemy, transforming these leprous outcasts into a spotless, sweet, and virtuous sauce, good enough for Eve.