MEMORIES AND MUSINGS ON APPLE TIME
Apples are the quintessential American fruit. Think Johnny Appleseed, mom and apple pie, or Ben Franklin’s pearl of wisdom, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and you begin to get the picture. Certainly in the place of my roots, North Carolina’s Great Smokies, apples were of great importance. For some, such as the hardworking folks in what is now the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they provided an important cash crop in yesteryear. For that matter, in Haywood and Henderson counties apples remain an important part of the local economy. Or, to look at a darker side of the picture, think about the killing of Hol Rose in my native Swain County in the early 1920s.
Horace Kephart memorialized the event with a chapter in his book, Our Southern Highlanders, and while it has problems, that account is far more accurate than most of his extended exercise in demeaning mountain folks and folkways. The whole event, which saw local farmer Babe Burnett shoot Rose, all revolved around the former turning an exceptional apple crop into pomace (the forerunner to distillation of apple brandy).
As I’ve mentioned periodically over the years in this newsletter, we had a tiny orchard on the hillside below my boyhood home. It featured Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Stayman, and Winesap varieties along with a volunteer tree that Daddy let live until it began producing. The results were so pleasing, a fine cooking apple with a brilliant red peeling, flesh tinged with streaks of pink, and exceptional keeping abilities, that henceforth he sprayed and pruned it just as he did the rest of the trees.
Memories of those apple trees and the fruit they made periodically course through my mind, but at no season are those fond recollections stronger than in September. There are several reasons why that is the case. September brought harvest time for the apples, and for once what was undeniably hard work was almost welcome. It was supremely satisfying to see one basket after another filled with apples, carried up the hill to the basement, and sorted. Windfalls and any fruit with blemishes were set aside to be “worked up” immediately, while others were carefully stored in a special space Daddy had set aside for them. From that point forward, week after week into the New Year, a weekly chore of mine was to sort through the baskets and massive storage bin to cull out any apples which were going bad.
I loved picking the fruit. Balancing precariously on a ladder (just try to find any other position on a steep hillside!), I would fill a peck basket, scramble to the ground to empty it, and once more ascend into the realm of lofty limbs and plentiful pomes. I particularly enjoyed the acrobatic action connected with fruit on the highest limbs. Daddy, who could figure out a practical solution to about any problem imaginable, had constructed a homemade “picker” which let you nudge the apples into a tiny catch basket one at a time. However, I preferred to knock them loose and catch the earthward-bound apple. There would be occasional misses and a bruised apple as the result, but that didn’t happen often. In those long gone days I was nimble as a young monkey and had fine hand-eye coordination.
Another joy associated with the apples was picking a couple en route to school (we walked the mile or so distance between home and the school buildings). One would be for me while I would shine and polish a second one to the point you could see a distorted reflection of your face looking back from the peel. Sometimes I gave it to a teacher and, occasionally, when I built up sufficient courage, I would present the lovely apple to whatever girl happened to have caught my fancy at the time.
The bushels upon bushels of fruit gathered over the course of three weeks or so were the product of plenty of attention throughout the year. Oil spray in winter, multiple sprayings for insects through spring and summer, and of course the arduous efforts associated with pruning and getting rid of the limbs we had cut. Spraying was particularly demanding because of the terrain. Daddy used a barrel-like device attached to a frame with single wheel and two handles which vaguely resembled a wheelbarrow and moved in a somewhat similar fashion. The spray container held 40 or 50 gallons and was the very dickens to maneuver on the hillside.
Then there was the springtime worry of a late, killing frost which could wreak havoc. Even though the orchard didn’t have an ideal “face” (the direction of the slope) I don’t recall ever losing a complete crop. That was possibly because the different varieties didn’t bloom at exactly the same time. Of course some years were better than others, and looking back I know the bounty of the crop had to have been a matter of considerable concern to my parents. With the possible exception of tomatoes and corn in their various culinary renditions, apples figured more prominently in our diet than anything.
Momma had a standing goal of putting up 200 quarts of “fruit” (mountain folks generally referred to apples on the table, no matter how they were served, simply as fruit) each fall. Until those Ball and Mason jars laden with their golden, lovingly prepared bounty lined shelf after shelf in the basement cannery, she wasn’t fully satisfied.
We ate apples in an amazing variety of ways—raw as snacks in season, as a side dish on a regular basis (it wasn’t at all unusual to have fruit with all three meals), in pies, cobblers, fried pies, cakes, and cookies. In order to enjoy such diverse bounty, September was filled with back porch activity. One evening after another we would gather as a family, often with one or more aunts and uncles joining in, to peel, quarter, and core apples. The finished quarters would go into big pans of slightly salted water (to keep them from turning brown) and would then be cooked and canned.
Alternatively, one “run” of apples would be worked up and sliced thin. They were to be dried, sometimes bleached with sulfur (Grandma Minnie was more given to this than Momma) and stored for use in fried pies or as the layering between the seven thin rounds of cake which were part of the construction of that quintessential mountain food, a stack cake. Whatever approach might be taken, it was a good time—one of family togetherness, telling of tales, laughter, fond food memories, and more. How I miss those porch sessions!
Even the scraps—rotting apples, cores, peels, and the like—were utilized. They were a feast for Grandpa’s hogs, and when apple time rolled around each year it wasn’t but six weeks or so until hog-killing time would arrive. When all was said and done, apple time was a wonderfully happy time, and if Daddy’s orchard happened to outshine that of our next door neighbor, Stanley Black, I rather suspect he was filled with a great deal of inner pride and satisfaction. It was deserved, because many years earlier, when Mr. Black made an annual practice of entering some of his crop in the annual state fair, his apples had been regular prize winners.
Those were the truly the days, and even now, six decades later, I look back on them with inordinately strong longing. Naturally the end result was what suited me best of all. Accordingly, it is only fitting to conclude with some recipes offering examples of how the product of a lot of work came to a worthy conclusion.
MOMMA’S APPLESAUCE CAKE
As I’ve noted time and again over the years, a fair share of my most powerful and poignant holiday memories revolve around food, and arguably none is stronger, more enduring, that those associated with Momma’s applesauce cake. She had many specialties—fried chicken, hamburger gravy, cornbread, mixed turnip and mustard greens, and enough vegetables cooked with streaked meat to fill a substantial chapter in a cookbook.
Two of the key ingredients in her applesauce cake were the fruit which gave the wonderful dessert its name and black walnuts. The “sauce” which went into the cake came straight from our tiny orchard, and it really wasn’t applesauce of the pureed kind at all. It featured chunks, juice, substance, and most of all, the indescribable taste associated with something we had raised, processed, and canned.
By the end of November, with apples already long since canned, dried, or stored, we had also gathered the year’s harvest of black walnuts. These too went into a variety of delicacies. We cracked them as a family and picked out the meats. It was a tedious but ultimately rewarding process. A marriage of the oily, pungent flavor of walnut kernels with the juiciness of apples, the meaty tang of raisins, and just the right blend of spices made for a rich, dense cake of incomparable delight.
Mom made a big batch of applesauce cakes each year, and a month or so before the arrival of the holiday season she would have a bevy of perfectly baked applesauce cakes “aging” in a downstairs room we never heated. They got better with each passing week, thanks at least in part to the addition of a dollop of apple cider to keep them moist and because, like fruit cakes, they benefited from a bit of time before being eaten. I think a few weeks just allowed the myriad flavors to mix, mingle, and eventually mate in a marriage of perfect taste. Whether that was the case or not, those cakes were sacred and inviolable until the week of Christmas. Not a bite was eaten up until that point.
But oh the glories of that first slice of her applesauce cake! It was so moist it literally glistened in the light like dew or frost sparkling on grass as the sun clears the eastern horizon, and to take that first bite was to be transported into a hillbilly heaven of culinary bliss. Unlike many cooks, Momma was never selfish with any of her specialties. When afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease late in life she went through a spell of “throwing away” which saw her dispose of many of her wonderful recipes. This one survived that purge though, and here it is. While the cake is delicious right out of the oven, I recommend the periodic anointing with moisture (just a couple of tablespoonfuls a week) for a fortnight or more. We always enjoyed this dessert in the Christmas season, but there’s absolutely no reason not to make it any time of the year.
1 cup butter (the real McCoy, no margarine substitutes)
2 cups sugar
4 cups flour
1/3 cup cocoa
4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons allspice
2 cups raisins
3 cups applesauce
2 cups black walnut meats
2 teaspoons vanilla
Pinch of salt
Cream butter and sugar. Add applesauce and remaining ingredients a small amount at a time, mixing as you go. When the batter is ready pour into a Bundt-type cake pan and bake for 50 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees. Check with toothpick to see if cake is done (toothpick will come out dry). Cool and then store in a cool place (the bedrooms in our home were unheated and a closet in the downstairs one became a temporary cake repository each December).
With the possible exception of various culinary renditions of corn—cornbread, soup mix with corn in it, creamed corn, cracklin’ bread, corn fritters, corn on the cob, grits, and more—no item made more frequent appearances on our family table than apples. The most common form was what we normally called fruit, or sometimes applesauce, although it wasn’t applesauce at all. Instead, fruit consisted of apples straight from a quart jar. They were prepared by peeling, quartering, coring, and cooking (perhaps with a bit of sugar) and then processed. The result was a heady blend of flesh, juice, and taste. Whether eaten cold, warm with a dollop of butter melted in it, or spread across a halved cathead biscuit and anointed with a dusting of cinnamon, fruit was wonderful. Maybe the best thing about it, for someone with a sweet tooth like mine, was that you got to have a sweet as part of a meal’s regular fare. There would still be dessert to come after the fruit, and chances were passing fair it would involve apples as well.
Quail are a treat any way you prepare them, and I’ll readily acknowledge being passin’ partial to a mess of fried quail with buttermilk biscuits and gravy. But for a delightful difference, try this dish.
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup finely chopped sweet onion
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup apple juice
Mix flour, salt, and paprika and lightly flour quail. Melt butter in a heavy frying pan and brown quail. Push to one side of pan. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add herbs and apple juice. Stir to mix well and spoon juice over the quail while bringing all to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until quail are tender (about an hour). Serve atop a bed of rice with apples stewed in butter on the side.
FRIED APPLE PIES
Both Momma and Grandma Minnie made fried apple pies on a fairly frequent basis. As a rule both used sauce reconstituted from dried apples. I think this was likely because it was thicker and less trouble to deal with (think oozing from the crust) than anything else. The process was simple and straightforward. The dried apples would be left to soak in water overnight and by the next morning would be soft and ready for use with the addition of a bit of brown sugar and either cinnamon or allspice. The pieces were made one at a time. A thin circle of dough about the size of a large saucer, made using the same approach applied for pie crust, would be rolled out and filled with a suitable amount of the stewed, dried apples. The crust would then be folded over to make a half moon, crimped along the edges with a fork, and was ready for the pan.
Cooking involved putting the pie in a hot skillet, greased with a bit of lard, and fried fairly quickly. It would be turned once, in order to brown each side, removed, slathered with a pat of butter, maybe dusted with cinnamon sugar, and put on a plate. Both Mom and Grandma could turn these out in rapid fashion, cooking one pie while making the next, but the first few had a way of disappearing about as soon as they left the pan. There would always be leftovers though, and a cold fried pie makes about as good a hunter’s field snack as anything imaginable.
Possibly because it was so simple, or perhaps thanks to the fact it offered an ideal way to use apples which were windfalls, culls, or had begun to go bad, cobbler was a dessert Momma served us on a quite frequent basis. For example, if I went down to the basement in early January for my latest round of checking stored apples to remove any which were going bad, she would always give me a bowl and instructions to bring those which had spots on them up to her. They would be cored (but not peeled), bad spots cut out, and cut up into cubes or chunks of perhaps an inch or less in size. These formed the basis of the cobbler provided by the recipe below.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup (or slightly less for sweeter apples) sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
¼ cup butter (a stick) melted
2-4 cups diced apples (vary the amount depending on whether you prefer a lot of fruit or a lot of crust)
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and milk and stir with a wire whisk until smooth. Add melted butter and blend with the whisk. Pour batter into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or pan. Pour apples evening atop batter. Do not stir. Bake for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees or until top is golden brown.
Note: Leftovers heat nicely in a microwave, and I like milk or a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop my apple cobbler.
It’s been a busy, eventful month. My only grandchild, Ashlyn, is now a college student, following in the footsteps of her mother, Natasha, at Presbyterian College. Never mind my indifferent performance (at least for my freshman and sophomore years) at another Presbyterian-affiliated institution, King College, Presbyterians are and long have been fine educators. It’s a milestone and I suspect there were a few tears shed as Natasha suddenly became an empty nester. I know that was the case when she launched out into college and life on her own back in the 1990s. Her Mom was morose and, although I did my darndest to hide it, I also missed her ever so much. Such are those footsteps and transitions which form a part of life.
I wish Ashlyn well in her academic and athletic endeavors (she’s a gifted athlete in a sport that didn’t even exist in my college days, acrobatics and tumbling).
On a decidedly different front, I received news in the early part of August that reader reports on my manuscript, “A Smokies Boyhood and Beyond: Mountain Musings and Memories,” were highly favorable. Although the formalities remain to be settled, there’s every likelihood that the University of Tennessee Press will offer a contract for the book with an anticipated publication date of the fall of 2020. There’s many a slip and snare between now and then, not the least of which will be working out contractual details, but I’m excited. Thanks to really helpful input from the readers (and that’s not always been the case in my experience), I’ve made revisions and have the project whipped into pretty solid shape. There’s additional good news in connection the project inasmuch as the Press wants some photographs to go with it. I’ll be digging into family archives and seeking a bunch of help from my brother, Don, who is sort of the unofficial family historian as well as a gifted photographer, for help on that front. Like I suspect is true of a lot of families, our visual resources from the middle of last century are limited, in many cases the photos are of indifferent quality, but I’m confident we’ll come up with enough images to convey the tenor of the times.
Other than that, I continue to plod along on the manuscript of a book on mountain characters even as I await word from the University of North Carolina Press on a project I submitted to them. It is a book on mountain foodways and recipes, with the focus being on the Smokies and that region’s food as I have known it. There are “mountain” and “Appalachian” cookbooks aplenty, but when I started digging around for those which were truly oriented on the Smokies and a genuine reflection of the region’s foodways, to my considerable surprise I discovered a dearth of genuine material. There are plenty of pretenders, lots of foo-foo offerings from folks who wouldn’t know hog jowls from side meat, and outlanders who somehow think using the word hillbilly or mentioning mountains equates to the real McCoy. My thoughts in this regard are simple: A plague on those Philistines.
I have no idea of what will become of the project, but I have every intention of seeing the book into print one way or another. At the point I completed the manuscript I hadn’t read a model work of this genre, but if you are a lover of food which comes from simple folks and is true to its roots, along with appreciating wonderfully rendered prose, get your hands on Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World. He’s a heckuva writer and certainly knows how to tell a tale. There are a select few writers who can manage to put my salivary glands into involuntary overdrive with words. Among them are Robert Ruark and Nash Buckingham, and Bragg now joins their elevated rank. I think he does less than full justice to rabbit and squirrel, but he offsets that with ample appreciation of the importance of pork and cornmeal in Southern diet. Mind you, he mentions ‘possum on more than one occasion. About all I can figure is that he hasn’t seen ‘possums in places I have (such as the carcass of a “ripe” cow) or else he’d eschew any and all mention of that marsupial as table fare. If you enjoy fine culinary writing though, get his book. You won’t be disappointed in either the stories or the recipes.
THIS MONTH’S SPECIALS
Just a couple of days ago my good hunting buddy called to let me know that he and his son had spent the whole day tilling, fertilizing, and sowing food plots on my land in the adjacent county. They are the only folks who hunt the property other than me, and rest assured they earn the right several times over through sweat equity. This particular effort was a surprise, and what a delightful one it was. All other things aside, it reminded me that another deer season is at hand.
With that in mind, it’s time to be reading deer-hunting books, and this month’s special will, in effect, be my biggest sale ever. Any book on my entire deer list, and there are hundreds of books listed, is 25 percent off. On top of that, order $50 or more and I’ll pay the postage. You can access the list here, (after making the link to my website, scroll down to the next to the last item in the various lists of books, “Deer Hunting,” and click on it to open the many listings of books on the sport which form the month’s special). South Carolina residents, please remember to add 7 percent sales tax.