Thursday, October 29

Rainy Days and Honey Crisp Cider

Another rainy day in the bunkhouse.  The rain on the tin roof seems almost therapeutic.  The squirrels made there way into the rafters a few weeks ago, I imagine they will probably stay for the winter.  They love to run back and forth above me, on rainy days like today it seems like we all get a little stir crazy.  Looking outside however, watching the rain fall and the last of the suborn leaves finally let go and fly away, I feel glad to be under this tin roof, the smells of a caramelized onion tart drifting up from the kitchen.

The bunkhouse at Moose Hill

The bunkhouse at Moose Hill Orchards is from what I understand an old barn, probably built sometime in the nineteenth century.  It is called the evaporator, owing to the fact that it used to be used to dry apples before storage.  It has since be renovated to house the picking crew during the fall.  The few brave souls that stay for winter tree pruning make there home in one side of the bunkhouse where they can be close to the barrel stove, the only source of heat in the cold winter months.  The kitchen on the first floor has become the place to socialize as the evenings have gotten colder.  The first floor also houses the room with the barrel stove where pickers often spend time playing the piano or guitar, or just drinking beers and telling stories.  The second floor houses several private rooms along with a library of books; shelves and shelves of them, collected and left by pickers over the years.  The third floor is sleeping quarters for those not wanting to spend their nights in a tent somewhere on the hill behind the bunkhouse.
On rainy days like today pickers can be found all over the bunkhouse, watching one of the many movies that have also seemed to accumulate in the library over the years, carving a pumpkin, or reading a book next to the stove.  Some just take the day to nap.  One can often find someone in the kitchen taking on a special baking project or heating up some leftovers for lunch. 
The desire for  a rainy day is a conflicted desire by this time in the season.  Earlier in the season when the days are long and the picking plentiful, a rainy day comes as a welcome reprieve from a six day work week, a lull in the storm that is the harvest.  By this time in the season however, as conversations turn to where people are headed next and when the last day of picking will actually be, a rain day just means one more day to wait. 

Honey Crisp Apples

They brought up some special cider from the packing house today, made only of Honey Crisp apples.  It was unlike any cider I have ever tried before.  Most cider is dark in color, due mainly to the dark red color skin that many apples have.  The Honey Crisp on the other hand has a much lighter skin and makes a cider almost the color of a white wine. Not as full bodied as most cider I have drank, it almost tastes as though it could be champagne without the bubbles.  On a cold rainy day the thought of mulling this cider and drinking it hot sounds like the perfect afternoon along with a bowl of popcorn and a good book.

Tuesday, October 27

Late Apples

"We are born believing. A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples."
                     -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

With only a week or two to go in the season, we have started picking all the later season apples.  The Mutsu, Golden Delicious and Red Delicious are some of the last apples to ripen.  With lots of apples still scattered here and there waiting to be picked for cider, morale of the crew felt low at the beginning of this past week.  Cider apples are traditionally all those apples that were either not big enough or red enough to be picked and sold as "fancy".  They are often scattered around a tree most of them on the inside and hard to reach.  All this does not make for very good picking when only cider apples are left.  With the first two days of last week dedicated to cleaning up several different orchards of Empires, Cortlands, Macouns and Galas picking the remainders of all for cider, the promise of the late season apples was still only a promise.  Come Wednesday morning after an all night rain, I awoke to a foggy morning, one of the only ones I have had here.  Hoping for a late start in order to let the trees dry out, pickers slowly made there way down to the kitchen to get that first cup of coffee.  Waiting for the roasted potatoes and fritata to be ready, standing out in the cool blanket of fog, the word came; we were headed for the Mutsus.    
An apple I have never picked until this season, the Mutsu was always promised by veteran pickers to be a great apple to pick, and for an apple picker that usually means a large apple that fills the bin quickly and doesn't bruise to easily.  The morning wasn't ideal, the fog held in the moisture, sometimes seeming to make the trees wetter rather than dryer.  Every time you would reach for an apple, you would be showered with drops of water cupped in all the leaves on the branches above you.
By the early afternoon, the clouds began to clear and the sun burned through.  It was good picking and nobody seemed to really want to go to lunch, for me, lunch ended up being an apple as I sat on my picking bucket taking a break.  The promise had had been fulfilled, the Mutsus were a great apple to pick.  
As the bins filled the day moved forward and the sun fell lower in  the sky.  By the late afternoon we had moved to long east/west rows.  As the sun reached the horizon I could peer down the row at one of the more beautiful sunsets I have seen since I have been here.  Each time I returned to my bin to dump another bucket of apples into the bin, it seemed as though the colors had gotten a little deeper and more brilliant, till finally it began to fade, as did the light.  By this time bins were being topped off and hands rubbed together as the chilly night air moved in with the deepening of dusk.  After seeing my breath, I knew I was glad to be heading back to the bunkhouse for some hot food and a good dark beer.    



Saturday, October 24

Story of an Apple: Golden Delicious

The Golden Delicious is one of the most well known apples in the United States along with its companion the Red Delicious.  Unlike many popular apples today which are the result of an intentional hybridization of existing apple cultivars, the Golden delicious was a product of nature, a chance seedling.  
Found in a pasture on a farm in Clay County, West Virginia, it is believed to be a cross between a Grimes Golden and a Golden Reinette, neither of which is commonly grown today.  The following is an account of the discovery:

“I was born in 1876 on the farm where that apple tree later became famous. My dad was L. L. Mullins, who owned the farm. "Now one day, when I was about 15 years old, that would have been about 1891, dad sent me out with a big old mowin' scythe to mow the pasture field. "I was swingin' away with the scythe when I came across a little apple tree that had grown about 20 inches tall. It was just a new little apple tree that had volunteered there. There wasn't another apple tree right close by anywhere. "I thought to myself, 'Now young feller, I'll just leave you there,' and that's what I did. I mowed around it and on other occasions I mowed around it again and again, and it grew into a nice lookin' little apple tree and eventually it was a big tree and bore apples. "Now my dad later gave that piece of the farm in a trade to my brother, B. W. Mullins, and later still he traded the farm place to Uncle Anderson Mullins. "Uncle Anderson had a brother-in-law named Gus Carnes, and one day Gus and Uncle Anderson decided to send some of the apples to the Star Brothers nursery to tell what kind of apple it was. And that was when the tree became famous and started the Golden Delicious apple line, for it was that tree that has produced every last one of the Golden Delicious apple trees that have ever grown anywhere. "The Starks sent a man to look at the tree, just like you've heard, and they bought the tree and the ground for 30 feet around it, and eventually they fenced it.  They were to get all the fruit from the tree, down to the last apple." [i]
Starks Nursery who bought the propigation rights to the apple began to market it in 1914 as a companion to another one of it's apples, the Red Delicious.  The original tree, which was purchased from Mullins for a sum of five thousand dollars continued to produce fruit until the early 1950's when it finally died.  It has since become a very popular apple and is grown from New England to Washington state.  It was also named the state apple of Virginia in 1955.
The Golden Delicious is one of the later apples to be harvested.  From a pickers perspective I find it to be a fun apple to pick.  Usually large, it is not as easy to bruise as a Macintosh, but if bruised, the golden skin will show it very readily.  When very ripe they often develop a blush where the sun hits them, especially those that have exposure to the early morning rays.  When over ripe they can be a little waxy to the touch and are very aromatic once in the bin.  Although I don't personally find it to be a great keeper, fresh off the tree it is very sweet and if not overly ripe, very crisp.  A great snack on an October afternoon. 
[i]"Dunbar Man 'Discoverer' of Golden Delicious Apple". Charleston Daily Mail. October 18, 1962

Wednesday, October 21

A Background

"What a healthy out-of-door appetite it takes to relish the apple of life, the apple of the world, then!"  -- Henry David Thoreau, Wild Apples

I fee like perhaps it is appropriate to begin with the story of my life, maybe not my whole life just now, but at least the part that has lead to a bunkhouse in New Hampshire, where I now sit next to a barrel stove writing this. 
I was born in Chicago Illinois, although I wouldn't consider myself a city kid.  By the time I was old enough to be out exploring my surroundings to any great degree, my mother and I had relocated to rural Wisconsin.  It was a small town in the hills called Gays Mills surrounded by orchards on one side and the Kickapoo river on the other where I spent most of my childhood.
I feel as though I have always loved being outdoors, but more than that I think I have always loved working outdoors.  From a fairly early age this proved to be true, I worked on an organic farm for three summers during my high school years.  It was also then that I got my first taste of apple picking.  I worked with a few friends at Flemming Orchards, one of the smaller orchards on the ridge outside of Gays Mills (there were six orchards at the time two of which have since closed).  Even my first experience picking was a solitary one.  I would often get sent out on an ATV pulling a small trailer with crates, filling them as I went.  Occasionally I would get to pick into larger bins, usually twenty bushels, which would require me to wear a picking bag.  From time to time I would also arise at two in the morning on a Saturday and travel with the owner of the orchard to the farmers market in Madison Wisconsin selling pecks and half pecks of apples as well as fresh pressed cider.
By the time I was a senior in high school I
had "graduated" to one of the larger orchards on the ridge, Kickapoo Orchards, another family owned orchard.  There I picked with a crew of people, mostly local, some of whom only worked seasonally or the occasional odd job.  I had finished most of my required classes in order to graduate, so I would spend the morning in classes and the afternoon in the orchard.  It was during this time that I began to fall in love with the apple harvest.  After spending all morning in a stuffy classroom, the fresh crisp air of an October day felt amazing.  Climbing a sixteen foot wooden ladder to the top of a Cortland tree and observing the surrounding valleys and bluffs cloaked in their autumn blanket would always give me pause.
After high school I attended a small liberal arts college in Iowa.  The schedule which worked on the block plan allowed me to take a month off per year and still be a full time student.  I didn't have to think twice about which month I wanted to take off.  For two out of four of my college years I spent the month of September in the apple trees before returning to school, with some extra money which I had no trouble finding a use for.
With four years of higher learning under my belt, I took a post graduation road trip, which at the time almost felt like a requirement.  Even after a trip British Columbia and the Olympic peninsula, the apple trees and autumn air pulled me back to Wisconsin and come September I found myself once again with a picking bag strapped over my shoulders, this time at Sunrise Orchards; the largest orchard on the ridge and the largest family owned orchard in the state of Wisconsin.
By this time the rhythm was set, I knew where I wanted to be when fall rolled around.  The following year I hopped off the Appalachian Trail after hiking for four months and headed back for the apple harvest.  Although I moved to Madison and worked at a cooperative bakery for the next two years I still found time to come up to Gays Mills for at least part of the season.  After two years in Madison however my wanderlust lead me to the road once again.  Having left Madison this past May I embarked on a long distance bike ride from New York to Michigan and than another across Iowa.  With this summer also came the fulfillment of a long time dream of mine as I made my first journey to Alaska.  Upon my return however summer had made it’s way to a close.  As the warm summer nights gave way to brisk autumn mornings I made one final journey to New Hampshire where I would pick apples for the first time away from my hometown.  My destination was Moose Hill Orchards, a place I had herd much about from several different friends who had picked there ten and twenty years before. 
Here I now sit next to the barrel stove in the bunkhouse at Moose Hill Orchards.  With apples still left to bring in and frost on the pumpkins, I can't think of may places I would rather be.  Cheers!

Monday, October 19

The Apple Seed

I have been an apple picker for nine seasons.  In that time I have learned a great deal about the apple, how it is grown, tended and harvested.  But in that time I have also spent countless hours out among the apple trees, many of them solitary.  All this time has given me the opportunity to think more about the significance of this fruit, how it has worked its way into the fabric of our lives.  More than that however, I also think about the apple as metaphor, as myth.

During these seasons, the apple harvest has worked its way into my own life.  If I was not out in the trees picking, climbing ladders, listening to tractors off in the distance hauling off full bins of apples, I would feel like a part of me was missing.  I know this might sound cliche, but an orchard in the fall seems like the only place that feels like home.
I don't keep a journal, I never have been very good at that, but I wanted a way to share some of my experience as an apple picker, the "culture" of apple picking you might call it.  My idea was to keep a daily journal of the approximately two month long apple picking season.  However, more than that I wanted to share the many things I have learned about apples as well as the my own thoughts and realizations about the fruit.
The apple has made its way into out literature, mythology, and cookbooks not to mention our bodies for centuries.  I would love to explore this more, and I hope to learn as much by doing this as will anyone who chooses to read what I write.
The apple has been taken from the tree, remade, polished and placed in a little box labeled "Red Delicious."  I want to open that box and examine what is really inside.  Through my stories and journal keeping I also hope to give a glimpse into the lives of fruit pickers or more broadly food growers and harvesters, people who have been largely marginalized and forgotten.  
Like an apple seed which will almost certainly not produce anything like the apple it came from when planted, I do not know exactly where this will lead, or what will come from it, but I hope it is something that is compelling, slightly nostalgic at times, informative and entertaining. Let the seed grow!