The weather is chilly but still sunny; the tomatoes in the garden have given up but the basil is still hanging in. Farmers markets that are worth the trip are getting more and more scarce, while traffic at orchards is picking up. Must be October.
On seasonal cue, we piled into the car last Sunday and drove west until the cul-de-sac developments gave way to farmettes, and a little farther beyond, found our orchard. It’s not one of those theme-park-themed orchards with petting zoos and corn mazes; our orchard has apple trees, a port-a-potty and a lady with a few donuts and the cash register in a pole barn.
We picked the pretty apples, breathed the crisp air, soaked in the golden autumn sun. Scanning acres that our forebears knew well—my family’s first settlers in Illinois lived out there—we inspected the trees, tasted the different varieties and dodged unruly but picturesque children playing soccer with moldering half-chewed apples. (Full disclosure: they may have been related to me.) After a few hours we returned home with heart-warming autumnal memories and a half-bushel of Empires and Jonamacs. Now what?
Not really a fruit fan, I think the best place for apples is a lunch box. Some child’s lunch box. But we’ve got twenty pounds of these suckers to get rid of. Clearly, cooking will be involved. The obvious go-to recipes for making use of a big mess of apples includes a litany of apple cookies, apple bread, apple betty, apple crisp, apple crumble, apple pie, apple buckle, apple cobbler . . . need I go on? They are all riffs on the same basic idea of baking the fruit with varying quantities of sugar, flour and/or oatmeal, cinnamon and/or nutmeg, and plenty of butter, maybe an egg or two. Their overall flavor profile is not all that bad, but not all that great: these American favorites don’t do a whole lot with the fruit except bake it soft and combine it with something else that is really the centerpiece. Be honest: is it the “apple” or the “crisp” part that draws you to an “apple crisp” (if you’re drawn at all)? And if that’s really the case, why not just cut to the chase and make some oatmeal cookies, or, saints preserve us, snickerdoodles?
My problem with these apple + dough recipes is my problem with their conceptual foundation that goes to the heart of the majority of American cooking. It’s the pride and the disgrace of my national cuisine: a desire to pursue the simplest means possible to complete a dish that probably originated somewhere else—in my family’s case, dumbing down some recipe from Germany, England or Sweden to make it work on the savage prairie. The typical end result for these one-pan wonders is a brown, not-pretty casserole of sweet cinnamony mush. Acceptable on the farm, back in the day, but here and now? I’m not convinced.
I guess mediocre flavor would be a reasonable price to pay if these dishes were as quick as they are easy, but that’s not the case. Apples require significant time to peel, core, slice. Unless you have eight kids whom you trust with a knife (as my farming ancestors did; me: not so much), it is a long process to prep those fruits for the pie plate, especially when the payoff is not that great. Give me a custard to stir or a dough to proof, anything that reveals the work invested in it and inspires a little applause at the table. Vielen Dank.
That’s not necessarily more work; it’s just different work that requires more concentration than you might have if you also have to pump the water, darn the socks, milk the cow, and break the sod—things I am freed from doing. It might be a stretch, but I think it’s more honoring to my farming ancestors to revive the cooking traditions they had to abandon. One of the last cultural connections that immigrants relinquish in a new land—after the language, after the clothes—is their food. I understand their impulse to process these fruits efficiently, substitute a pastry shell for globs of batter or sprinkles of oatmeal on top. My people had to make significant concessions to make life work here on the prairie. I have a cushy enough life now that I can indulge in recapturing the challenging, demanding, tricky recipes of the homeland. Am I saying that baking apple crisp disgraces our ancestral roots? Possibly so, but so be it. Grossmutter Rohrsson, this kuchen’s for you.