It’s a simple association, lodged deep in my consciousness like a fiction in the mind of a Fox News commentator.
When I was a kid in Denver, our back yard was divided down its center by a row of four large apple trees.
The trees provided abundant fruit that functioned in several ways: as a seasonal clock, as a food product and, most important, as sporting goods.
When the trees blossomed, it was spring.
When the trees set fruit, summer was underway.
When the fruit ripened, we kids were back at school, autumn had taken hold, the year was on its last legs. We were looking at Halloween coming up in a week or two, (with plenty of apples for the near-drowning experience of apple bobbing), Thanksgiving rounding the corner and the holiday season on the horizon.
Those trees and their products put out distinctive smells to define the seasons. The fragrance of the blossoms lent sweetness to the air as things came back to life in the spring. When the apples ripened, their scent pervaded the atmosphere in that back yard. As unpicked fruit fell to the ground and began to rot, there was a cidery ping on the sense screen.
When the apples ripened, Mom went into action. This was an exciting time of the year for her; she loved all things apple and the fruit promised wondrous delights for the table and treats to be stored in the pantry and enjoyed throughout the winter and early spring.
Mom prized apple pies and she had a recipe for a “special” applesauce that made her positively giddy.
Of course, she didn’t peel and core the fruit, bake the pies or cook and can the applesauce — she had someone else do it. As the World’s Worst Cook, she knew better than to tamper with something so important.
And, naturally, she did not pick the apples.
That was left to my brother and me. And, since I was a rather chunky fellow, and four years older than my brother, the in-tree labor was his, under threat of significant physical injury.
When the call came to harvest apples, when the various-sized fruits had achieved just the right shade of mottled red skin, Mom mustered the troops, I browbeat Kurt until he wept, then forced him aloft. In my imagination these many years later, I see his skinny little body through the branches of the tree as he maintained a precarious perch with one hand and reached for the apples with the other. Occasionally, he would be attacked by a swarm of bees.
Kurt dropped the apples to me and I flipped them into wooden baskets. When the baskets were full, into the house they went for processing.
The end products of the harvest were real treats. We shifted to an apple diet for the better part of three weeks, plowing through one pie after another, devouring cobblers, cakes, cookies and crumbles. We had some type of apple-based dish for breakfast. We took apples to school for lunch. Apples appeared again on the dinner menu, and in snacks.
What kind of apple were they?
For sure the apples were not one of the four or five genetic mutants that grace supermarket shelves these days, each engineered for maximum resistance to shipping damage and a long shelf life. No doubt, ours were “heirloom” fruit but, with an abundance of varieties flourishing before the agrigiants sprang full grown from the head of Zeus, no one thought them unusual. Or as heirlooms, which, in my youth, were pieces of ominous-looking furniture passed down through three generations, and a gaggle of Hummel figurines.
We didn’t tire of eating our apples. Except sister Karen, who whined incessantly when apple season arrived. But, since the lynchpin of Karen’s diet was aspirin, no one paid her much attention.
The food was much appreciated, but the recreational use of apples preoccupied me, my brother and our friends in the neighborhood.
The recreational essence of an over-ripe apple can be summed up in a word: Squishy.
When the apple stayed on the tree past its prime, it fell to the ground. Kurt and I made sure an ample supply of apples stayed on the trees, making their fall earthward a certainty. Once the apple was down, the tender embrace of damp and still-warm earth led to the swift degradation of the cells of the fallen fruit. In a nutshell: The apples rotted.
There was a point in that process when the apple was still firm enough to handle, yet squishy enough to burst upon contact with a surface, exuding a flood of mush and juice. Determining that precise moment was a science we quickly mastered.
When the apples reached the ideal state, they were perfect material for the annual West Washington Park Apple War.
We gathered up loads of the rotting fruit and armed ourselves, dividing into factions. We set out on search and destroy missions, stalking each other through the neighborhood, on lawn and sidewalk, in yard and alley, engaging in a fruit-flinging frenzy.
There is nothing quite like being hit by a rotten apple. The stinging impact is followed immediately by the awareness of an unhealthy wetness, and a distinctive smell. Clothing and skin is coated with rotten fruit flesh, sticky and thick, reeking of apple death. Take one to the head and the experience is unforgettable.
Thirty minutes after the combat began, a horde of gummed-up goofballs was out of control, chucking apples every which way, hitting cars, buildings, windows, pets and defenseless, aspirin-chewing sisters.
Thirty-five minutes after the carnage began, it screeched to a halt when the adults of the neighborhood emerged from their dwellings and imposed an armistice. The United Nations could take a lesson from those parents.
Then, the clean-up.
Washing rotten apple goo off a car is more difficult than it sounds. Cleaning a sister is impossible.
One round of recreation remained, however: a trip to Washington Park proper, with a basket full of rotten apples. And a baseball bat.
Who can forget a brilliant autumn afternoon, the air warm, the smell of dry oak and elm leaves on the breeze, the waters of the South Lake rippling, the tweets, quacks and honks of birds sounding in the ears?
Who can forget that spot on the shore of the lake, between the pier and the lawn-bowling green? And the explosion of golden-brown apple sludge, backlit by a setting sun, as fruit met Louisville Slugger?
I can’t. I think of it every October, especially when some transplanted flatlander starts waxing poetic about aspen leaves.
“Oh yeah,” I’m tempted to say. “You want a brilliant sign of the change of season? Try taking an heirloom to the noggin at ten paces. That’s a sign of autumn.”
I’m also tempted at this time of year to use apples when I cook but I face two problems: I do not have the resources available, as did Mom, to pay people to do the work and, with my ferocious case of ADD, I hate to bake and preserve foods. I can make a gesture, using apple with pork, adding of a bit of apple to a salad, but that’s about it.
My nod to autumn and the apple ends up in the form of a single and simple apple tart.
Tart dough, made with a food processor, is produced quickly enough that I am not distracted by a repeat episode of Cops, or a bright, shiny object in another part of the room.
For the dough, I use an amalgam of traditional recipes offered up by Mark Bittman and Jacques Pepin. I take a little more than 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour and add a bit of salt and a couple tablespoons sugar and I put the mix in the bowl of the processor.
I’ve got 10 or 11 tablespoons of very cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes. I pulse the flour mix then I add the cubes of butter and pulse until the flour looks pebbly. In go three egg yolks and I pulse a bit more. I don’t want to pulse so much, though, that heat is generated and the pebbles of butter begin to soften and melt.
I turn the dough into a big bowl and add three tablespoons of ice water (with more available if needed). I mix with a spatula and form into a ball. The ball of dough is flattened into a disc, wrapped in plastic wrap and put into the fridge for a minimum half hour.
I take out the dough, roll it out on a floured surface to a diameter that allows me to drape it into my tart pan with enough available to come up the edges of the pan. I press the dough into the pan, trim it, poke holes in it with a fork, line it with tin foil, weight the foil with dried beans and blind bake the crust at 425 for about 15 minutes.
The dough comes out, the temp is reduced to 375-380.
Onto the surface of the dough go overlapping slices of peeled and cored Granny Smith apples (who is Granny Smith?). Maybe some plumped raisins are tucked between the layers of apple. Cinnamon and sugar are sprinkled on top of the fruit and the apples are dotted with a few bits of butter. Into the oven the tart goes for about 45 minutes.
The tart is cooled on a rack and glazed with a thick coating of apricot preserves. About half a cup of preserves is melted slowly in a heavy saucepan, strained and brushed on the apples.
A slice of this tart, a scoop of super high-fat vanilla ice cream … that’s a lively change of season for you.
Maybe I’ll go a bit farther this year, allow the current of nostalgia to pull me along.
Perhaps I’ll buy a couple dozen extra apples, spread them on the lawn, leave them for five or six days. I’ll gather up my grandson Banzai. We’ll divvy up the apples and chuck them at each other, then hide in the underbrush and lob one or two at neighbors and passing cars. I’ll see if I can locate a baseball bat and we’ll stroll down to the shores of Lake Pagosa, just before the sun sets.
For old time’s sake.
After all, it’s fall.