Formative Food Memories: Apples

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t absolutely love apples.

When I was about 7, my parents bought their first microwave. I don’t think any of us knew what to do with it at first–it often scorched the popcorn we popped in our “microwave popcorn popper” (this was before the bags came out), the eggs it scrambled were tough on one edge and raw on the other, and cheese melted but didn’t brown on our sandwiches. Then Mom bought a microwave cookbook, and in the back of the cookbook was a recipe for apple crisp in the microwave. I remember we made it over and over again, in a glass Pyrex dish, and it was unbelievably good. I had a special fondness for the “overcooked”, crisp-chewy corners of the oatmeal streusel topping, which was so perfect as a counterpoint to the mealy, sweet apples.

We’d often go for a drive in the mountains of NC during leaf season, to go for a short hike along the Blue Ridge Parkway and check out the gorgeous scenery. We’d stop at roadside stands and buy those hard mountain apples–so crisp and sweet, I remember them fondly. (I later went to college in those same mountains, but the apples I found near school weren’t nearly as wonderful as those I remembered from my childhood.) We’d buy from almost every stand we passed, it seemed; my brother and I had eagle eyes for roadside apples and my parents didn’t mind getting another half-peck every mile or so. We’d crunch into the apples after school for weeks after these trips, until the big box on the dining room floor was emptied.

I worked for my dad briefly after graduating college. It was a simple job answering phones. I often packed a lunch and ate it in the conference room. Sometimes Ray, one of the managers, would eat lunch in there too. Ray had had lost a couple of fingers over the years due to industrial accidents. He had only three fingers on one of his hands. He was the kind of guy who carried a pocket knife at all times. Once I watched him put the knife in his good hand and a small apple in the three-fingered one. He carved thin slices expertly off the fruit, making the cuts and then spearing the piece on the tip of his knife before popping it in his mouth. He did it with so much finesse, it was surprising he was able to manipulate and support the apple easily with his bad hand.

I think I was already up in DC and trying to find a “real job” when I saw a PBS cooking program that visited Fearrington House, at that time the most expensive and luxurious restaurant in North Carolina. (My parents have been there, but I have not.) Their pastry chef was demonstrating an apple tarte tatin for the camera. She picked up an apple and peeled it and sliced it with alacrity. I’d never seen the confidence she had handling that apple. It was like Ray could have been cutting an apple with 10 fingers and a lifetime of patisserie experience. I realized as I watched her that I wasted a lot of time futzing around with apples when I wanted to get busy with them. It had a huge impact on me and was always a mental goal–to be that good with peeling and slicing an apple.

When I was in culinary school, I externed as a line cook at the DC location of Ortanique. We had an apple-cherry chutney that went on the cheese plate that had amazing keeping qualities. I’d make a half-case’s worth of Granny Smith apples into this chutney at a clip. This is when I learned how to handle an apple quickly and efficiently.

Last fall, I catered a large wedding. I bought a case of sour apples from Ridgefield Farm up the road from me. Some of them were turned into a canape: sour local apples with mustard cream and smoked trout. Others were used as decor. And some were set out with dessert for those who preferred eating an apple while wandering about. I had many, many of these apples left at the end of the evening, so I brought them home. I had a medical procedure later that week, and my mother-in-law came to help out with my son. She stood at the counter with me for two hours, helping me peel and dice all those apples. We made an enormous batch of applesauce that carried us through several months, and it was gooooood.

I’ve got applesauce in the freezer again. Earlier this season I sauteed a bruised honeycrisp (I don’t cook unblemished honeycrisps) in just a tiny bit of butter and it was almost as perfect as an apple eaten out-of-hand. I bought the first Pink Lady apples of the season last Sunday. It’s a great time of year for apple lovers.

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