I recently got into a text discussion with a friend about apples. He lives in Washington State, and he thumped his chest a bit about the many varieties available there. Recently I was in the grocery store and realized we have a fair number of varieties here in the East Coast as well.
I never really thought about it where I live in Connecticut. I buy apples but, for some reason, I think I mostly buy them in the fall. I always pick up a paper tote bag of Macintosh or Macouns near the door of my local grocery store. Of course, we eat them year round, so I don’t know why it feels like I only buy them in the fall.
At our house in Massachusetts when I was growing up, we had a few apple trees. They were evenly spaced in two rows, three on one side, five on the other. I never knew any of the varieties, but some years they were quite prolific, and we needed to pick them up in buckets lest the fruit rot on the ground. This of course was the absolute worst chore, and our folks used to encourage us to make a game of it, standing back from the buckets and tossing the apples from where we stood. Ooh, look I made a shot—needless to say it didn’t work. It’s funny, I think it would seem fun today.
We never sprayed the apples with pesticides to keep the bugs and worms out of them, or otherwise encouraged them to grow. They just did, year after year. When I go home now, those trees that once seemed enormous to me, or those that remain, anyway, now seem stunted and gnarled.
One tree we had by the kitchen door was a crab apple. The fruit were small, bright green, and each one hard as a golf ball. Some years that tree was prolific enough that the fruit would fall so thick on the ground you couldn’t put your foot down without stepping on one or two. They were brutal if you happened to be barefoot, though probably a bit better than the wormy, brown, and better-camouflaged specimens beneath the other trees, which would smear beneath a footstep, or could even make you slip chasing a fly ball in the wiffle ball game.
The crab apples were the best choice should you get in an apple fight, an unavoidable eventuality in a family with three boys in a neighborhood with plenty of kids around. I remember hiding behind the tree farthest from the crab apple as my older brother waited me out. I broke for the corner of the fence by the woods, and, as I ran directly away, he drilled me right between the shoulder blades.
Occasionally I would find an apple on the ground that had just fallen (usually not during an apple-pick-up session, since I could honestly say during those—and probably often did, vociferously—that if I never saw an apple again, I would be a much happier person) or actually reach up and pick one that looked, well, palatable. I would give it a polish on the belly of my T-shirt, and take a bite. The apples that we found in this condition were invariably rock hard. Also the texture was terrible, almost unchewable in its graininess. The flavor was acidic, not a hint of sweetness. Did I mention the skin was like leather? Usually I would end up spitting out the single tiny bite, since these four attributes conspired to make me resolve never to try one again. Until next time.
There was one exception to the apple trees in our little orchard though. At the very front of the property, last in the longer row of apple of trees (or first if you didn’t live the majority of your life in the backyard, as I did) was a pear tree.
The pear tree was different. For one, the fruit was not as common as the apples most years. I have no idea what variety they were, but in my mind they were brown-skinned like a Bosc (which I confuse with an Anjou to this day). Also the branches were quite high up the tree as I recall, so we generally couldn’t get to the pears before they fell to rot in the grass. And when they did sit in the grass and rot, they attracted yellowjackets at a far greater rate. All the fruit would do this, depending on the weather and if one of my brothers or, more likely, I mowed the lawn without picking up some of the fruit, instead chopping into the perfect consistency to bait the stinging insects.
And while I didn’t always like to eat apples as a boy, I have always loved pears. But now I love them all.