Every few years, sugar just might coalesce out of the kiln-baked soil in my grandparents’ plum thicket at their little retirement ranch in western Wyoming.
The plums were the size of cheap green olives, hard enough to use for slingshot ammo until September, when the first daredevil winds tobogganed down the mountains and playfully knocked them down. A presidential administration might come and go before any survived until they were edible. But when the marauding frosts lurked above 6,000 feet for a precious extra couple of weeks, earth’s delicious alchemy of slanting sun and towering August thunderstorms infused them with sweetness.
In those exceptional years, a slippery fermenting mass of ripe purple bonbons enticed mule deer down from the hills to get plum drunk, silly as kindergartners at an all-you-can-eat cotton-candy buffet.
Grandma Bell kept canned foods in the dark recesses lining her dirt-floored cellar, where a pump always in need of Grandpa’s tinkering stayed half a step ahead of the ditchwater that seeped through the walls. Although grandma had a Tibetan monk’s sense of frugality, I don’t remember that she ever made preserves from her plums — they may have been just too fickle.
Apples: A farmyard staple
Apples played a bigger role than plums in my family’s survival.
Walking home during the first comfortable weeks of autumn, as a girl my mother meandered through her folks’ apple grove, where beckoning mottled-red fruit bent the branches so low they almost touched the tall grass, more dusty yellow than gold in the brief interlude before the snows pounced. Maybe they were a hardier variety of pioneer cowboy apples, or maybe her memories were filtered through the perfecting lens of time, but Mom didn’t recall them having worms, only juice sweet as dessert on a one-room-schoolhouse day in the austere 1930s.
Mom remembered a year when their pig gorged on so many it nearly enacted the exploding-glutton scene in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.” This pig sparked another memory of Mom’s, of a year when she and her brothers Tom and Bud rescued a pair of orphaned mallard ducklings on the old family ranch on Upper North Fork and fed them so many earthworms they couldn’t close their greedy little bills. They survived the experience, still lean and coursing with enough wildness to quack up into the southbound migration that fall.
This year I have my eye on several gnarled apple trees that peek out from the brush in long-abandoned farmsteads around the Columbia River estuary. They also may date from pioneer times and could even represent rare “lost apples” — cultivars that slipped beyond memory as varieties like Red Delicious took over grocery-store produce aisles. My grandpa’s apple orchard may well have been planted in the 1880s by some veteran of Antietam, thirsty for the magical elixir that a perfect hard cider can be. Apples were planted here along the Lower Columbia starting back in the early 19th century when the Hudson’s Bay Company was, in effect, the government. Saving these archaic apples from oblivion has become something of a pet cause in the Pacific Northwest.
Johnny Appleseed was a real man, John Chapman, who traveled the young nation from the 1790s creating fenced apple nurseries. These were in effect operated as some of America’s first agricultural cooperatives, selling trees to neighbors on shares. In an era when contaminated water was a relentless killer, hard cider was a pure, mildly inebriating beverage that also provided a way to package and preserve many of the nutritional benefits of apples. Cider mills were scattered across the country, and provided Chapman with free seeds to encourage the planting of orchards. Increasing immigration from Germany, with its adoration of beer, combined with the disruption of Prohibition to blight the cider business. Today, most people think of cider as a less-refined form of apple juice, an autumn novelty of no consequence.
There is a sensation like biting into a crisp, tart apple when you sip a great hard cider, a rapturous transportation into an idyllic fall morning — perhaps like my grandparents’ old orchard where I can still imagine the frost evaporating off into white vapor, a bright crescent moon looking close enough to touch still floating high above the sage- and pine-clad mountains. Like a good wine, a well-made cider encapsulates the best of its birthplace — I think I first could imagine England after my first taste of Woodpecker, a medium-sweet cider available from importers.
Most mass-market ciders available in grocery stores have far more in common with wine coolers than legitimate cider, being a carbonated concoction of apple juice and other ingredients. Thank heavens, we’re lucky here in the Pacific Northwest to be near the world’s most celebrated apple-growing region and many new artisan cider makers. Last week I tried two offerings from Astoria’s Reveille Ciderworks — a general-purpose cider and another infused with marionberries — and endorse them both.
Mom made applesauce most autumns in her 85 years, another way to preserve and enjoy the essential goodness of fall. Months later, as the rain pounded down, we’d open a jar and relive autumn’s perfect weeks of starry nights, dewy dawns and shirtsleeve afternoons. I know my daughter, after once spending an afternoon learning at her grandma’s side, will always keep a perfect apple in her heart.
Chinook Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco.