In a perfect adult world — that is, one where I was at liberty, with sufficient funds, and without children — I would have gone to a screening of “The Departed,” then had dinner at a nice tapas place. Maybe one of those baseball games we had in the D this weekend, had I been lucky enough to get a ticket.

As it was, though, I saw “Akeelah and the Bee” on pay-per-view, ate a pizza from the Sicilian bakery down the road and spent a weird Saturday afternoon mourning what we left behind in Fort Wayne.

Yes, mourning: As I think I mentioned not long ago, in the Fort you’re never more than a 15-minute drive from the country, and this is the time of year we’d spend part of a Saturday at Ohlwine’s Orchard, filling brown grocery bags with apples apples and more apples, along with a gallon of cider, and head home feeling all apple-y and autumnal and good. This day is followed by several weeks of pies and applesauce and (my favorite) Cider-Roasted Chicken (recipe from Betty Rosbottom’s “American Favorites,” if you’re interested).

Last year I went looking online for u-pick orchards in the Detroit area. The closest was, I’m not kidding, 47 miles away. I settled for the Eastern Market selection and decided I would make a better plan in 2006.

Now it’s 2006. The Free Press offers a pdf of their guide to orchards and cider mills, more than three dozen, complete with a map, hours and all the rest of it. I downloaded it, and we decided to go picking after Kate’s soccer game Saturday. I studied the map and found the ones that seemed to be closest. One was on 37 Mile Road; to put this in perspective, we live between 7 and 8 Mile. Another was out by the airport. Huge advantage: We could drive nearly the whole way on freeways. So we chose that one.

As we neared the airport, Kate, reading in the back seat, asked, “How long have we been driving, anyway?” The answer: 35 minutes. But in 10 more we were at the exit and headed west. The pavement ended and gave way to washboard dirt, a very good sign that lasted about 30 seconds and we saw the traffic stopped ahead. Workers in color-coordinated T-shirts waved us into a parking lot along with a crowd that might have rivaled that at the Tigers game. Across the road was a carnival, complete with rides and inflatable jumping things. We quickly realized we had wandered into a venue of what’s now called “agritainment.” You know all those stories about the country mouse getting fleeced by his fast-talking city cousin? Rest assured, he is getting his revenge.

The carnival was only part of it. There were pony rides, a petting zoo, a pumpkin patch, crafts for sale, food and inadequate restrooms. You might be asking yourself, “But was there a massage chair with masseuses available for a quick rubdown?” Oh yes. And was there a rock band laboring through Free’s 1970 classic “All Right Now”? Mm-hmm. I looked around for any indication that we might be able to pick some apples. I couldn’t even see any trees. We crossed back over the road to the pumpkin patch, where people stood in line to get their gourds weighed by an unsmiling teenager and pay for them to an even less happy grandmother. APPLES $10 BAG, the sign said.

I waited in line. “Where do we pick apples?” I asked the grandmother, who reminded me of Marge Simpson’s sisters. “Kitty-corner over there,” she said, taking my tenner and handing me an empty plastic bag. “What varieties do you have, and is there a map to the orchard?”

“Guy over there’ll know,” she said. “That’s what we have,” pointing to a hand-lettered piece of cardboard, reading, “RED GOLD DELICIOUS EMPIRE MATSU.”

I hate Red Delicious apples. I can tolerate a few Golden Delicious, but only when they’re absolutely fresh. Empire I’ve never had before. Matsu I’ve never even heard of. I like an apple to bite back a little. There’s no shortage of sugar in the world, and tart-crisp is the apple for me. Specifically, Cortlands. I like Jonathans for eating, but for baking, ahh, it’s the Northern Spy.

“What about Cortlands? Jonathans?” I couldn’t imagine a serious apple orchard without these.

“Guy over there’ll know.”

We trudged back across the road, and found the guy over there. I said, “If you don’t have a decent tart variety I want my money back.” Somehow granny’s mood was catching.

He assured me Matsu was the one for me, although “most people just want the Delicious.” Northern Spy? “Oh, them’s all gone,” he said. He did have one other variety not on the card — Jonagold. Ah well.

We made our way into the rows of Matsu. The apples were green and softball-size. We filled half the bag, then made our way over to the Empire, the Jonagold, and topped off the parcel with a judicious few Golden Delicious. We were nearly alone; only two other families were in evidence. The relative isolation, and the pretty trees, and the smell of rotting windfall fruit worked its spell. It didn’t take long to fill the bag. We didn’t feel the need to stop back at the carnival for some kielbasa or whatever the hell it is they were selling.

I kept thinking, “What would Alice Waters do?” Try as I may to resist, I’ve fallen for her preposterous image of the countryside for too long. (It is only the adult version of the children’s-book countryside — chickens in the barnyard, cow in the pasture, sheep in the meadow — that I swallowed whole as a child.) That is, of a countryside dotted with rugged people living an authentic life, tied to the soil and the timeless rhythms of the earth. They have no time for artifice or posing, because they have to spread manure or tend to the cheese ripening in the…wherever cheese ripens. The cheese house. They get up at dawn without complaint. They don’t watch television. And so on.

And time and again, I learn that the pictures in the cookbooks aren’t true, that farm wives love Velveeta as much as suburban soccer moms do. They plant the apples that sell, and when they sell, they throw in as many ancillary money-hoovers as the acreage will accommodate. It’s really sort of funny, when you think about it.

Note: The Matsu are not as tart as I like, but not bad at all. Haven’t tried the Empires yet. But next year, I’ll make do with what’s at the Eastern Market.

Posted at 6:39 pm in Popculch, Same ol' same ol' |

15 responses to “Agritainment.”

  1. Beryl Ament said on October 8, 2006 at 7:41 pm

    Think outside the box. You need to go to another country. The orchard in Canada which we loved closed down a couple of years ago, so now we have been going to Thiessens :
    Yes, its a distance, but the Ontario countryside is lovely and you can visit Jack Miners and see geese or stop off at produce stands—even eat in Windsor on your way home. Don’t settle for Eastern Market.

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  2. RalphJ said on October 8, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    I’m kind of suprised you haven’t blogged about the Amish school shooting since I know it rankles you when Christians get good publicity (i.e. the good pub being Amish forgiveness of the killer). Just figured you’d say something like, “Don’t be fooled, the Amish really do suck.”

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  3. Bob said on October 8, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    You didn’t say anything about a corn maze. Surely, they had one of those, too! And it’s almost time for a haunted barn.

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  4. nancy said on October 8, 2006 at 10:40 pm

    They had a Barn of Blood, but I didn’t see a corn maze, although I’m sure there was one.

    And Ralph, I’m leaving your comment in to show that while my head is pretty agnostic at the moment, at my heart I’m still a Christian. Go ahead, slap the other cheek, you dolt.

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  5. Mindy said on October 9, 2006 at 7:20 am

    October is a dangerous month to be on the country roads in my husband’s old stomping grounds near LaPorte. Chicagoans in their very expensive and often very new luxury sports cars drive much too fast on their way to buy bags of apples at the orchards. Acutally picking the apples isn’t an option for these people because they might get their shoes dirty.

    A man I once knew of in that area had a lovely home on the most incredibly beautiful property that looked like a postcard in the fall. The house was nestled among mature woods on rolling hills with a lake near by. One Monday morning years ago he got a call from a realtor in Chicago asking if he would be interested in selling his place. Then the calls started getting more frequent as the trees got more colorful. He finally took his name off the mailbox.

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  6. nancy said on October 9, 2006 at 7:59 am

    Yes, there is something of the “PROVIDE ME WITH AN AUTHENTIC RURAL EXPERIENCE NOW, DAMMIT” in the whole idea of u-pick, isn’t there? I used to like to eavesdrop on parents trying to make the whole deal a “teachable moment” — “And you see how the tree’s root systems are, Caleb? See? Caleb? CALEB!”

    Ah, well. Human comedy.

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  7. brian stouder said on October 9, 2006 at 8:53 am

    I have never done the u-pick thing, but my wife’s parents live the west Indiana rural life (albeit with most of the comforts of city life) and our young folks enjoy going ‘over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house’, even as much as Pam and I see the value in providing them with an ‘authentic rural experience’.

    It is worth noting that my wife’s folks really DID live the full-monty storybook rural existence (wring the chicken’s neck, milk the cows, build fence, de-tassel the corn, etc) as children and young adults, and they would not choose to go back to that!

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  8. colleen said on October 9, 2006 at 9:24 am

    “Most people just want the Delicious”

    Of course they do. They’re all pretty and shiny and perfect looking on the outside, and then when you bite into them…meh.

    Like the Paris Hilton of apples, or something. It’s a metaphor for something, I’m sure.

    Mom took us strawberry picking. We didn’t like it much, if I recall. There were actually apple trees IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD when I was smallish, so we picked a few there every fall.

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  9. Dorothy said on October 9, 2006 at 9:35 am

    We’ve done the strawberry thing in June, maybe 10 years ago, and then made jam. To me it wasn’t worth all the aggravation, but I’m glad we tried it once. Never did the apple thing, though. I bought a bag of Macintosh last week for the first time in years. It was what my mom always bought so the taste was so familiar. Cored and cut into eighths and dipped in peanut butter, they made a nice treat yesterday around noontime!

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  10. Gary Moore said on October 9, 2006 at 10:22 am

    Don’t give up on finding an orchard. There are a lot of them in the Detroit Metro area. Here’s an address of a website that lists orchards throughout Michigan:

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  11. mary said on October 9, 2006 at 10:49 am

    Even in nasty northern New Jersey we had an orchard within walking distance when I was a kid. There are condos there now. For larger scale apple picking we would go to Pine Island, NY, which isn’t an island, but had great apples and onions. It was not far over the northern border of NJ into Orange County, New York. Here in LA,the closest apple orchards in are the San Bernadino mountains, and I understand it’s a two hour traffic jam up mountain roads to get there. I haven’t tried it. We just do the peach and pear trip in late summer, and it’s sufficiently rural and uncrowded where we go.

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  12. brian stouder said on October 9, 2006 at 10:53 am

    This orchard subject can be a classic NN.c-style entry onto your GroP blog – AND give you an excuse to go to a few more of them before the season ends, the better to rate them using any number of amusing metrics (such as “sourest apple seller” [or the ‘sauciest’ ones] plus widest selections, etc)….and come to think of it – very few places are more photogenic than an orchard in autumn (flickr-friendly)

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  13. Jill said on October 9, 2006 at 3:35 pm

    In the early 90s, we used to like to go to Yates Cider Mill, though being in Rochester, it’s probably overrun with people. Beautiful setting, though, and I remember lovely walks along the river.

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  14. joodyb said on October 9, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    was there some big orchard/fruit farm like that right outside of columbus? or like what used to be far East Broad Street? i remember the East Siders making a big deal about fall pilgrimages there. it became the site of the first Wal-Mart or something gargantuan and ridiculous.i’m probably mixing it up with some other place. but there’s always been a circleville pumpkin festival, my barometer for the fall leaves/smell of cinnamon and sausages experience…

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  15. Adrianne said on October 10, 2006 at 4:53 pm

    Nance, Empires are an invention of the agricultural geniuses at Cornell University who were looking for an eating apple with more kick than the bland Red Delicious. I think they’re delish! They’re my default eating apple (Cortlands and Northern Spies for baking, of course).

    Ulster County, NY, is lousy with apple orchards, many of them U-pick without the accompanying corn maze/witch barn/hayride ersatz rural experience. This weekend: the pumpkin patch.

    Remember people used to drive their cars into the Ohlwine’s orchard? They couldn’t be bothered to walk a few steps to the trees!

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