We live in the part of my hometown where all the old, tall, famous people live. Or used to, more like. Truth be told, there were only two people who ever legitimately filled that bill, but they were outsized doozies by any measure: Nobel laureate John Kenneth Galbraith, and French chef extraordinaire Julia Child. It was a treat to have their six-foot-plus fame in our midst, amusing to run into them at the dry cleaners, fun to peek at what they had in their grocery carts. Okay, that only happened once with Julia–who, for the record, wasn’t beneath stocking up on Pepperidge Farm goldfish.
Alas, they’re both long gone from this world, their houses now otherwise occupied. But the memory of them always percolates up for me most vividly when October rolls around. Because the Galbraiths were the most entertaining neighbors to visit with our boys at Halloween (think wooden Balinese masks and full-sized candy bars), while Julia inspired an October cooking obsession in me that lives on to this day.
My annual cooking effort began just after Julia published The Way To Cook, her 1989 opus. That cookbook included a drop-dead fantastic recipe for applesauce. Having a local culinary legend provide me with the definitive how-to was all the coaxing I needed to do exactly what my mom had always done, every October.
I’m sure that Julia’s applesauce recipe includes more ingredients than my mom’s ever did. Which, now that I think of it, presumes that my mom ever had a recipe to follow, which was probably never the case. Making applesauce was simply what any mother with an obliging apple tree in the back yard did, back in Maine, back in the day. It was something my mother probably learned from her mother, Mary Crie, who learned it from her mother, great-grandma Campbell. Apples make landfall out by the clothesline, women gather them up and turn them into pies and applesauce, no cookbooks required.
I hated the job of collecting apples when I was young. The swarms of yellow jackets that visited them on the ground were a source of nightmares. None of the fruit I gathered looked like anything you’d find in the grocery store, and most looked like sad mistakes of nature, knobby and bruised and never particularly round. They came, they fell, they couldn’t really be good for anything, could they? Well, no, except for those who wielded Foley food mills. Armed with that contraption, any mother could turn brownish backyard fallout into something worthwhile.
Tools of the trade. And that’s not my mom’s Foley food mill, no siree. That’s the Rolls Royce of food mills, courtesy of William-Sonoma. Had to take out a mortgage on that baby, all but. Worth every penny.
Fast forward a few decades, and there I was, with Julia Child’s recipe in my cookbook holder and a pair of applesauce-loving toddlers underfoot. I decided to yield to my maternal roots and create my own applesauce-making tradition, minus the windfall fruit.
But absent an obliging tree, what’s the signal that applesauce-making time has come? For me, it will always be the convergence of two autumnal events: the start of the post-season baseball schedule, and the moment that the local supermarkets advertise half-peck bags of Macintoshes and Cortlands and Empires at somewhere south of a dollar a pound. You can set your watch to both these predictable events, always in early October.
Cheap raw material is an obvious reason to ramp up one’s applesauce production in October, but the baseball connection? That turns out to be a grand intersection of October Things That Take Time. Which goes like this: If you care about baseball, and if your team’s still in the hunt in October, there are sure to be lots of late nights spent watching TV, cheering for this year’s heroes, bemoaning the commentary on Fox, and, in our case, hoping for yet another Red Sox miracle. The further into the post-season they make it, the later and longer the games go. It’s just a baseball fact.
So while you’re watching and pacing and waiting for some baseball magic, making applesauce turns out to be a good thing to have going on, on the back burner. And on the front burner, as well. Turns out, it takes three burners: one for the apples to bubble away, one to sterilize the Ball jars beforehand, and seal the tops after they’re filled. And one more burner, for the pot that simmers the lids. Which sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t. It just takes time and space for things to come to a boil, to get to the right state of mushiness. Nothing but time. And baseball has all the time in the world.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are other things that lend themselves to multi-tasking with my applesauce-making efforts. Observing presidential debates warrants an evening of chopping those Cortlands, squeezing those lemons. (Yep, that’s the magic ingredient: lemon rind and lemon juice, along with cinnamon, a dash of sugar, and a touch of vanilla. Julia was a genius!) Waiting for election returns is also a good excuse for having something else to show for your efforts at the end of the night. I think I might have been making applesauce when our younger son was in the college application throes, and an early action deadline was looming upon us. It’s always good to be the mom who’s got something else on the stove. Literally.
One thing I wish I’d done over the years was to keep a sampling of all those lids, where I commemorated the nights when extraordinary things were happening as my applesauce bubbled away. A friend who ran for Congress lost a close race in 2010, and came back two years later to take that seat—I commemorated both those late night vote counts with NH 2nd district applesauce. There was a batch of Joe Biden-Sarah Palin debate applesauce, but none for Amy Poeler-Tina Fey–much as I loved those SNL skits, they were too short, and started too late for my applesauce-making time frame. In less than stellar Red Sox years, there have been farewell applesauce batches, as careers came to a close: Bye bye, Mike Lowell. Thanks for all you did for us, Tim Wakefield.
This year, I made a first batch of the season for my buddies in Whipple OH who are die-hard Pittsburgh Pirates fans, on the occasion of their team’s first post-season victory in decades.
And this year as always, it seems that the label is as much about the people who might enjoy my efforts, and the things they care about, as it is about the event commemorated. I love it when friends and family can both enjoy my applesauce and say to themselves, “Yeah, that was a good game, a good night.”