Stories Of The South: Apple Country
To a child growing up in the Low Country, having a grandfather in the high apple country was a wonderfully fine thing.
My grandparents knew nothing of paucity. Their white, two-story house was splendid with children and generosity and extra pantries. Grandfather, tall like his seven sons, had a abundance of white hair and the quiet, self-assurance to match. Although he had bought a farm on the edge of town to keep the boys out of mischief, his vistas were considerably wider because he traveled the railroad from Atlanta to Richmond in charge of the U.S. mail. Even his leisure drew upon challenge. I often shared his lap with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday crossword and a large, red-leather Webster's.
The only thing diminutive in the household was my grandmother, but she compensated for her stature with an oversize funny bone, often overwhelming her with mirth, bringing tears to her eyes and a hoarse chuckle to her voice. Her brothers had received the education funds. She, instead, based her higher education on a slow cataloging of life experience, which condensed into a pithy wisdom. Her philosophy embraced giving and receiving with grace.
To a child growing up in the Low Country, having a grandfather in the high apple country was a wonderfully fine thing. In the fall, just before the foliage turned to match the red clay of the Carolina mountains, the apples dropped from the trees, tart and full, and my grandparents scurried to make the most of these gifts.
The best of these, the smooth, firm, and unblemished fruit, were relegated to the root cellar, where my grandfather carefully packed them in barrels, layering them in sand to keep them from touching one another. Here they were safe from the snows and the ice storms to come. The dry cellar, smelling of musty earth, already hoarded a cache of onions, carrots, beets, and potatoes from the garden–provender for winter. There they hid–secrets–like the dried corn in the wooden crib out back or the basket of hickory nuts waiting for Christmas cakes.
Those apples whose flesh had been pierced or bruised from their fall to earth had different fates. One of these was the cider mill, constructed by Grandfather for the season. Once the mill was in place, the apples, fresh from their cold-water baths, settled into a wooden tub and surrendered their juice to the press, the horse in harness constantly circling, willing the press down. Helpers scrambled to catch the cascading liquid, holding up copper pots to the flow. Ths was man's work, however, so during the milling my grandmother conveniently turned her back, knowing some of her boys would bury a few jugs in the cool autumn ground to produce a slightly stronger brew. The leavings from the cider mill went to the livestock. That way, the whole apple served.
On the last warm days, my grandmother arranged sliced fruit on large trays covered with cheesecloth and put them out to dry in the sun. The snowy-white cloths obscured the grass and seemed to foreshadow the winter to come. Once the barrels of apples from the cellar were depleted, she would resort to the dried ones. These she meticulously tended, turning and watching them until just the right amount of moisture had drawn upward toward the sun.
Inside, the kitchen grew warm, and the spicy aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg permeated the rest of the house. Stripped of their peelings and cores, some of the select fruit simmered into applesauce. This sauce would turn the pantry golden, sharing honors with other mason jars of peaches, tomatoes, green beans, and watermelon-rind pickles; it would later share breakfast plates with steaming grits, home-cured ham, farm eggs, and homemade sausage, or would fill the thin pies and tarts at Thanksgiving or Christmastime.
The cores and peelings, by-products of the applesauce, had yet another use. They were the ingredients for jelly, boiled and cooked down to give out the last succulent bit of flavor rendered from summer's warmth. Grandmother would pour this cooked mass through layers of cheesecloth, from which it dripped, slowly steaming, and then mustering all the strength in her frame, she would grasp the cloth and wring every last drop for the final stage.
After the condensed liquid simmered, the spoon finally pulled away sticky, and at that precise moment, she declared the jelly ready for the sterilized jars and their hot paraffin covers. The jelly would reappear on her oak sideboard with Grandfather's honeycomb and thick, sweet sorghum, small jewels to lather on thick graham biscuits.
The apple country spoke to me of abundance and thrift and some kind of contract with God. It seemed to me there had been a certain prior arrangement that stamped the outcome with approval in advance. That arrangement appeared to be something like doing your best and enjoying the best in return.
My grandparents' mountains were also symbols to me of a certain largesse of spirit as full as the sound of the rain on their tin roof as I huddled under one of her home-sewn quilts or as warm as the late-evening coals in their bedroom fireplaces. This spirit hovered in their orchards and accompanied a jug of cider to a neighbor down the road. The bounty multiplied as it was shared, making the man somehow equal to the apple.