I spend so much time immersed in the ridiculous, it becomes absolutely essential that I find my way to the sublime as often as possible. Food, gardens, and a select group of awesome people are my Xanax.
A passion for apples was instilled in me from an early age, when my mother would roam the family homestead’s orchard, which had been planted somewhere around 1890. She would name varieties like Transparents (varieties were usually referred to in the plural), Greasy Pippins, Spies, Winesaps, Jonathans, Russets, Dutchesses, and Snows. It was, really, a wild orchard of sorts, as she didn’t “cultivate” the fruits. An occasional trim of dead wood was the only maintenance of which I was aware, and the apples probably resembled their predecessors as a result. These were not fancy, unblemished fruits—and yet my mom extended affection and respect to each one, spots and all. I suspect that this was a mater of course for earlier generations, especially those with connections to life during the Great Depression. There would be a good deal of grave rolling if those folks saw some of us in our petulant rejection of imperfect-looking, diminutive fruits, as we lob them down the orchard rows as we seek the perfect apple-picking experience.
She rejected almost no apple. She would sit on the porch, or in the kitchen if it was later in the fall, with an enameled pan full of apples on one side, another full of water in which to deposit the prepared slices. She peeled, quartered, and sliced using a little paring knife that wasn’t particularly sharp. She would salvage any part of a yucky-looking apple, even if it resulted in two slices being added to the pan of water and apple slices. I suppose that this was a meditative practice for her, despite the fact that her lovely pan of apple slices was periodically raided by kids. When I think of the considerable labor it takes for me to make a pie using enormous, perfect apples, it’s pretty humbling.
I am a better cook, in general, than my mom was. We didn’t have a lot of financial security growing up, and she used some cheap-ass ingredients and menu-stretching methods as a result. She was also allergic to onions and to black pepper, so the Flavor-Meter was pretty much permanently set to “Bland.” Another side effect of Depression days was the practice of cooking the hell out of everything. And when I say “hell,” I mean flavor and texture and nutrients. My mom burned out many a cheap pan while cooking vegetables on the stove. The one exception to this rule was her baking, and especially her pie baking. The apple peeling process described above yielded a mixture of apples, whose flavors would meld together into something pretty remarkable.
Right now, I have some Granny Smiths and some Winesaps in the kitchen. Neither are shiny from the grocery store. Both were locally grown. Winesaps are tough to find, and they were not named after an over-emotional drunk. You must try them, especially in a pie, to understand.
I know, I know—those pricey Honeycrisps are trademarked and tasty. But if you get a chance, hit a farmer’s market and try something that is old along with something that is new. And remember that it won’t kill you to cut off a blemish; it takes a lot of chemical seasoning to make an apple look “perfect.”