There should be a chamber at the airport that you should have to sit in for a prescribed length of time when traveling back to the East End from upstate—you really need some time to acclimate.
I’m not from “upstate,” but from Western New York—where Appalachia and the Rust Belt overlap. (Some public relations genius is not marketing it as “The Enchanted Mountains.”) I couldn’t see Alaska from the house I grew up in, but I could see Lake Erie from our back forty.
Last week I went up to visit my mom and found myself shoulder-deep in apple season. It’s a fine place for a home canner to be. I borrowed a large canning pot from my Aunt Linda who lives down the road. Linda also supplied jars for us to fill and the crucial ingredient—apples. Walking the dozen or so steps from Linda’s porch past her chicken coop, to her orchard, I shared a factoid that never failed to impress—until this moment:
According to Martha Stewart, the average American apple tree produces 840 pounds of apples a year.
Aunt Linda said, “Bout twice that this year.”
Holy gigunda—she wasn’t kidding. Her trees produce apples from yellow to green to red. All of the trees were dripping with apples and all of the apples were dripping with cold rain water, the branches were starting to crack and splinter under the weight. It was like a frosty fairyland, Apple Heaven.
As I shucked off my clogs and hitched up my skirt to climb the nearest tree, Aunt Linda said to my mom, “She’s just like your mother, always gotta be doin’ something,” to which my mom replied, without a moment’s hesitation, “Yep, lucky for me it skips a generation.”
We filled up a bucket, a thick plastic bag, a basket and the lid of a large cardboard box inside of 10 minutes. Turned out I didn’t really need to climb that tree in order to pick more apples than we could carry—but as soon as I did it started to snow and then, when I was sliding back down out of the tree, I cut my hand open on the bark—the quintessential Western New York Apple Picking Experience.
There’s no way Linda will gather all of her apples this year let alone put them all up. The dozens of jars of applesauce, apple butter, apple mincemeat and sliced apples we canned over the weekend are just a drop in the cider bucket. Western New York’s roadsides, farm fields and woodlands are dotted with antique apple trees of every size and description. Yes, Johnny Appleseed was a real guy. John Chapman (1774-1845) was a nurseryman and a missionary who planted apple tree nurseries all over Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and West Virginia. So where did New York get all of these apple trees?
These old, sour apples made the best hard cider, an important source of sustenance for settlers, or so they thought. In heavily populated Europe, safe water could be hard to find. Better safe than sorry out on the trail. Right now this country is seeing a huge resurgence in the popularity of hard cider for two reasons: a gluten-free diet is hot (i.e. no beer); unlike beer and wine, one doesn’t have to develop a taste for cider. It’s comparatively sweet. Kids love it.
In true Western New York orchardist fashion, Linda has no idea what kind of apple trees she has—they were on the property when she bought it and they’re so covered with sooty mold it’s kind of hard to see what they’re “supposed to” look like.
I located a place upstate that will press your apples into cider. You have to bring in a minimum of eight bushels. I wonder how many bags and box lids are in a bushel. Hard to tell…