Archive for Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Apples deserve autumn reverence

September 26, 2007

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The fruit trees in our yard were loaded with blossoms in April when that monumental cold snap hit. Overnight and with fatal decisiveness, we lost our apple, peach and cherry crops.

While I mourned the peaches and cherries a couple of months ago, I'm now missing our apples. I had forgotten how devastating that shift in spring weather had been until their absence reminded me. Late summer and early fall are just not the same without local apples.

Apple crops in some areas to the east of us also got hit by the late-spring freeze, which means that the grocery stores may charge more this season. Even so, apples are such an autumn fixture that a spike in price isn't going to keep me from buying.

Next to the pumpkin, which has a guaranteed market because of Halloween, the apple is the item of late-season produce most insulated from the fluctuations in supply and price. There will always be demand.

As I was pondering this reverence that people have for the apple, I decided that the apple had two things going for it. First, there are the apple's practical benefits, namely its portability, durability and long shelf life without refrigeration. For this reason, the apple has been a staple of the sack lunch for generations of workers and school children.

This is one of those comments that dates me as a cultural fossil. I have heard that school children, at least the older ones, now go to McDonald's over the noon hour and would rather starve than eat a sack lunch from home, but there was a time when such things had a certain charm and respectability.

This brings me to the second reason that we will always eat apples, even if we have to pay extra for them. Apples are an inextricable component of our idea of comfort food. Exhibit A, of course, is the apple pie and its close cousin the apple crisp. Nothing evokes a sense of home and contentment like the smell of baking apples. This is why real estate agents sometimes suggest popping a frozen apple pie into the oven before a house is to be shown to prospective buyers.

For me, baked apples figure prominently in my childhood food memories. This may have been a post-war thing that gained traction through a recipe in a women's magazine or popular cookbook, because my husband also recalls baked apples being a thing to eat during the 1950s.

When my mother made baked apples, she placed three or four cored apples into a glass casserole dish and added about an inch of water. She then put a dab of butter into the hole in each apple and sprinkled in a little brown sugar and some raisins. She placed the casserole, uncovered, into a 350-degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

Other variations called for using white sugar and a sprinkling of cinnamon, with or without nutmeg. My husband recalls eating baked apples that had been seasoned with red hots, which intensified the cinnamon flavor and added a dash of color.

In any case, the baked apple was a fall side dish that had immense kid appeal, once upon a time. It has largely disappeared from newly released cookbooks, now that baked fruit as part of the actual meal is out of vogue. But as all things go in and out of style, I can't help but think that the baked apple is an idea whose time will come again.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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