I had the unusual opportunity recently to meet one of the original settlers of this part of Wisconsin. Unusual, since people don’t generally live to an excess of a 120 years. Apple trees apparently do, however, and this individual spreads her heavy, scarred limbs in a small clearing surrounded by trees that have grown up in what was once a field, a stone’s throw from the long abandoned homesteader’s cabin.
The ancient tree still flowers in spring and slowly ripens fruit over summer, dropping a harvest in the fall that is gathered up by descendants of the original settlers. Her age and graciousness have earned her the title of “Grandmother Apple” from those who know her. There are countless individuals like Grandmother Apple scattered across the rural landscape of our country, living out their years in quiet company with dilapidated farmhouses and barns reduced to old foundations of stone and crumbling mortar.
It is thought that apples were the first trees humans cultivated, so they have been our companions for a very long time, filtering down into the culture and folklore of the places they have been known and cherished. The Greeks declared it to be the tree of life. They also had a custom of throwing apples at people they really liked, taking a caught apple as a sign of the affection being mutual. Given the enthusiasm and confusion of teenage romance, I don’t know if the idea of lovelorn youngsters trying to communicate by thrown fruit is funny or tragic.
Apple trees were brought ashore at Plymouth in the 17th century and in the early days of our country, an orchard was as much a part of the colonial homestead as a garden, a pig and a spinning wheel -- all part of the effort to survive as independent property holders. The fruit could be easily kept through the winter, while barrels of hard cider were used as currency and drunk for health.
John (Appleseed) Chapman furthered the progress of apple orchards westward by supplying homesteaders with trees from his thousands of acres of nursery stock. For religious reasons, he refused to propagate trees by grafting, which is what results in sweet eating apples. If you have ever tried to eat apples from trees that the deer have “planted”, you know that seed-propagated fruit is bitter. They are more akin to the cider trees that Chapman grew and sold by the thousands, traveling the countryside as a barefoot, tin pot-hatted oddball, evangelizing for Jesus and America’s favorite alcoholic beverage. This is why we love this country.
So I don’t know if it is patriotism, a feeling of kinship for a long-time companion of humanity, or simple madness that causes me to visit orchards in the fall and acquire bushels of apples. Whatever it may be, there are currently several boxes of the bewitching red fruit resident on my kitchen counter. So far, I have mostly found other things to do, but eventually I will get around to making a big roaster oven full of thick, spicy applesauce to freeze for the winter.
I cook the apple slices in a heavy stock pot until they’re soft, then puree them in a blender and transfer them to the uncovered roaster oven at low temp to cook the sauce to my preferred thickness, adding cinnamon, cloves and ginger in the amount Tom and I like. Between now and when that task actually gets accomplished, there will be plenty of opportunity to divert many apples for eating raw, cooking in savory dishes alongside pork, sausages and sauerkraut or making my favorite fall dessert: apple crisp. And while there’s a lot to be said for making a simple crisp of nothing more than apples, flour, sugar and butter I admit to liking this version much better: Glorious Apple Crisp
Peel, core and slice into a buttered 9x13 cake pan:
Variety of apples to a depth of a couple inches I like to use a combination of sweet and tart, crisp and mushy, but you just need plenty, because they cook down. Sprinkle over the top and mix in: 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon ¼ cup butter, cut in pieces In a large bowl, mix together until the butter is reduced to pea-sized lumps: 2 cups quick oats 1 cup flour ¾ cup brown sugar ½ teaspoon salt ½ cup chopped candied ginger ½ cup chopped walnuts ½ cup dried cranberries ½ cup butter, cut in pieces Sprinkle over the apples. Don’t press down -- if it is uneven, it will bake crisper.
Bake at 375° for ½ hour. Serve in bowls while still warm. It is pleasant to cool it off with a moat of cream. Leftovers are quite nice for breakfast.
Sally Rasmussen lives in rural Taylor County with her husband, Tom.