Tasting Apples at the Edge of Epidemic
by DL Shirey
Fresh picked they are almost too tart, if that’s possible. The flavor becomes quite rich and complex when stored two weeks. Dark red skin with a stripe of pale yellow. Crisp and juicy. Would make excellent apple butter.
Phee would have loved this. The first sharp bite, the skin as it folds with a snap, a shock of sweet-sour before the subtle flavors reveal themselves. Not that I dare get caught eating them straight off the tree, though I wish I could. No question a ten-minute soak in G4 affects the first taste of the apple, but the memories of fruit are still so vivid, even I can forgive the brief, metallic tang.
Of all the varieties, Phee liked Liberty best, the cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious. She preferred them cold-stored, not refrigerated. Didn’t use them much for baking as the texture got a bit mealy when they were cooked. Phee never used anything else for caramel apples.
A year ago, September, when the local Boy Scouts held their apple tasting, Phee’s first bite was a Liberty. It was tradition. The McCollum’s boy, little Donnie, kept an eye on the barn door and when he spotted my wife, came to escort her to the sample. Of course, Donnie’s folks owned the orchard, but that wasn’t his motivation. It was to watch Phee’s eyes light up on that first, crisp bite. She closed them again while savoring the flavor. Mmm, she said, meaning it, not being duplicitous for the boy. You could tell by her smile, how it stretched the breathing mask. She unhooked it again for another bite.
Masks had become de rigueur by then, at least for those of us who went outside. We tried to participate in activities that bore some semblance to normalcy, but there was always concern. I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but in our little town, the decision came house by house, family by family. Everyone, eventually, had to choose: live life again and follow the rules for prevention; go about your business and ignore the small army of food testers and National Guard checkpoints. The TV news assured us that following government recommendations would stop the pathogen from spreading.
There’s nothing like Priscillas for cider. Fine-grained, perfumed meat. Pull them right from the tree and into G4, then straight to the press. Three-quarters red blush over cream skin.
Two Septembers ago, the Boy Scouts cancelled the event. Hell, they almost disbanded the entire troop. Back then everyone was scared. No one went anywhere, except for a few who went to church, or maybe to Huxley when authorities delivered a safe shipment of food.
The way back to normal started in church, I’d say. People went to mourn the dead, pray they wouldn’t be next, or ask Him to help find a cure. I wasn’t there, so I had to picture those poor souls in that small church, each on a separate pew, all wearing breathing masks and dishwashing gloves. Phee described it well, then she paused to remind me: even five folks in church is considered a congregation, no matter that each sat ten feet from the next.
It didn’t surprise me, Phee going to church. But I couldn’t do it, not at first. She braved the contagion from the very start, even nursed the Johnsons when the family came down with it. Phee prepared meals from unquarantined food, delivered to shut-ins, and urged everyone to go back to church. From there the congregation slowly grew. Masks and gloves seemed to make the outside world a possibility again. And when martial law was lifted, and that tanker truck with G4 rolled into town, people like me began to venture out.
For eating, I’m partial to Mutsu, first bred in Japan. The skin is noticeably crisper than most and often there are notes of anise in the fruit. And the meat never turns brown after the skin is broken. It’s amazing. Green when picked, turns yellow after storage.
Last September the Boy Scouts again took over Heinemann’s barn for apple tasting. Donnie McCollum was there watching for Phee, and the crowds were sparse, so she was easy to spot with her wild curls barely lassoed back. She was like a stick match, bone-thin with that thick mop of red burning up top.
There was a uniformed boy at every table, gloved, sashed and merit-badged. Under their masks, I’m sure, tongues poked out in concentration as they cut up samples with their regulation Boy Scout pocket knives. Apples halved, and again to quarter sections, the thick slices skewered by toothpicks. The samples were piled in front of whole apples, so patrons could see the shape and color of the fruit. A popsicle stick was jammed through the skin with the name of the apple written on the wooden flag.
Every guest had a small yellow pencil and a sheet listing the names of the two dozen apples available that year. There was space next to each name for the taster to write impressions. Next to that a bin number, to find and purchase the fruit of choice.
If you love apples, it’s not hard to tell the ones soaked in G4, just by the look of them. On the tree, the colors are as delicious as the flavors. Every blush vivid. Red and yellow and green in combinations no painter could ever render. In the bins, you can see how the chemical varnish fades them. The apples might be safe to eat, but the colors have that metal tang on them, too.
Phee always baked with Pristines. Come in early, at the end of July. Acidic, tart and juicy. Nothing better in a pie. Smooth, pale yellow, with just a hint of pink.
When I think of Phee, my memory starts at the stables. Her parents were long dead and had left the pastureland for Phee and the horses. We would saddle a couple of trotters and amble toward the sunrise hills. Along the creek were a dozen trees and we could see the spots, like flames, grow as we got closer. I remember her knee-deep in tall grass running to the trees. I can still see the sunlight spark her red hair, so vivid, even the apples in that forgotten orchard could not compare.
Wild apples, perfectly round. These trees were planted ages ago. Even Phee wasn’t sure what variety they were; perhaps the first Winesaps in the county, she liked to think. Maybe Staymans. After we lost the horses, we would still drive the Jeep there. It was our one indulgence, now against the law: picking fruit from trees, eating them, not knowing if they were safe. Not caring, really. We did it year after year and the trees were so old, so remote, they had to be safe, didn’t they?
Little Donnie didn’t quite know what to do when I came alone this year. Everyone knew what had happened. Sad news travelled in small towns, especially between the few of us who remained. The masks didn’t hide their eyes; I could tell what they felt.
It was just dumb luck that my arthritis flared up the morning we planned to drive for wild apples. Phee had her heart and mouth set on the trip, so she went without me. She was coming back with two bins of shiny red beauties, God knows how many she had eaten on the way. But the Sheriff had stopped Phee and took her away for violation of the G4 ordinance.
I’m sure she’ll be out before next year’s apple tasting.