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.