|Drawing by Toki Oshima.|
By Julia Davis
one red leaf
First, pick a sunny fall day when the smell of falling leaves is in the air. It must be a day when summer almost feels like a distant memory, a day when the air is crisp in its coldness, like an apple fresh from the tree. Pick a day when the trees scatter all colors of red and orange and yellow, when branches become increasingly naked, and when you can kick the dried leaves into a pile in front of you while walking. Pick a day when chipmunks are almost fat enough to hibernate, beaver have stored almost enough branches for the winter, and frogs and turtles are about to bury themselves down into the mud. Pick the perfect fall day.
Second, find an old apple orchard. Find an orchard with trees that have spent years without human hands to guide their growth, with branches crooked and stunted from indecision. Pick an orchard overgrown with tall swaying grasses and overrun with grasshoppers and the sound of crickets. The orchard must have a long history behind it — a history of people and robins and fire – a history that you do not know completely.
Third, place one foot on the lowest knot and pull yourself up to the first branch. Place your weight on the roughness of this branch and ascend still farther. When you can reach the perfect red and green spheres of crisp, sweet fruit, pick each tenderly. Appreciate each scar, imperfection and worm hole as a mark of individuality. Place each apple carefully into the cloth bag that you dragged up the tree behind you. If you are lucky and the bees were busy this year, your bag will fill quickly. Climb down to retrieve another empty bag, and another, and another. Fill these bags to the brim with the hard fruit. If you see apples too beautiful to pass up at the ends of the branches, shake the sturdy trunk until you weaken their stems enough so that they drop to the ground. While you fill your bags with one hand, use your other hand to pick one small, shiny fruit and take your first bite into the crisp, white flesh. As your teeth sink past the skin, savor the burst of sweet and tart. This is the taste of fall – remember.
Next, drag your bags of apples from the orchard to your car or house. You should feel delightfully tired, sunburned and ready for lunch. When you get home, quickly eat a fresh apple and cheese sandwich before starting to chop apples. At this step in the process, you need to obtain good friends and bluegrass music. Tap your toe in tune to the fiddles and banjos and focus on the chop, chop, chop of knives on cutting boards. Slice, dice and otherwise divide the apples into small segments. Explore wormholes, although you will seldom discover the worm that made them. Throw all these apple segments into the biggest pot you have, cover them with water or cider, and simmer. Keep chopping. Keep simmering. Stir often. Fill the kitchen with the smell of apples. Step outside and back inside to truly appreciate the scent. Save the least blemished apples to eat and dry. If you have the energy, slice some of these thinly, sprinkle with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, and arrange them on the racks of a dehydrator.
When your applesauce looks soft and mushy, ladle out a steaming bowlful to have with homemade toast. Eat slowly, testing the flavor in your mouth before swallowing.
Boil water in a large pot and submerge clean glass mason jars. Immerse the round flat lids in a small bowl of boiling hot water. When you are too impatient to cook the applesauce any longer, ladle it into sparkling hot jars, place the lids on, tighten the screw tops, and place the jars back in the boiling water for 10 minutes. Now you are ready for the pure satisfaction of hoisting the jars out of the boiling water bath, placing them on a cloth on the counter, and sitting expectantly with a cup of tea to listen for the ping that tells you that they are sealed.
It is the dead of winter. Enormous snowflakes fall slowly toward the ground, clumping together in balls before they reach your outstretched tongue. You crave sunlight and warmth and dark green leafy vegetables. All you want to do is cuddle under a blanket with a purring cat and a wood stove nearby. This is the time to take out the applesauce. Reach into the back of the cupboard and pull out the now dusty jar. Unscrew the band and pop off the sealed lid. Try to restrain yourself from digging your spoon into the moist pink applesauce. Take a moment to smell the contents of the jar and remember the sun on that fall day. Close your eyes to imagine the crunch of the leaves, the sound of laughter and the clean fall air in your lungs. Only then are you ready to sink a spoon into the jar and place this heaping spoonful in your mouth. Hold it there for a minute. Appreciate the subtleties of this batch. Smile and swallow.
About the author: Julia Davis has spent her “whole life” (23 years) gardening, going to the Common Ground Country Fair, and eating fresh, organic food. She is currently based in Bar Harbor, Maine.