Before my husband and I had children, we had lots of ideas about priorities, those values that would loom large in raising young people. We both believed in fostering a love of reading with our children, spending lots of time outside, and being as present as we could in their lives—which meant that family time would always trump the stockpiling of more hours ascending corporate or academic ladders.
Now that we have two children, it’s interesting to see how these beliefs have held up. But one priority I did not expect was our family’s attitude about food.
When we were first married, we lived in a large city on the West Coast with close proximity to great restaurants of all types and convenient packaged food at our neighborhood grocery store. A good friend and I would compare notes about our favorite pre-made items to purchase—a delicious ham and Gruyere flatbread pizza that didn’t taste frozen, the perfectly seasoned premade steak and bean chili. Our freezer was piled high with these handy products. Although I also loved to cook, we enjoyed the ease of having something easy to prepare after a long day.
When our son was old enough for solid food, his first vegetables were organic sweet potatoes out of jar, which he ate with vigor, and decorated his high chair and the wall with bright orange streaks. As he became a toddler, he fell for the charms of packaged food—soy-marinated tofu sealed in plastic, refried beans, and frozen French toast sticks.
His little sister joined us a year and a half later, and we decided we missed being so far away from our families, so we moved several thousands of miles away to a tiny Midwestern town where my husband’s parents lived.
Almost immediately, we had to shift our thinking about food. Not only did our town have few restaurants, the idea of eating out with a seven-month old and a two-year old was far from a relaxing endeavor. If I craved Thai food, stir-fry, or a crisp chopped salad, there was only one answer–to make it myself. Instead of ordering pizza on Friday nights, we made our own, with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes my mother-in-law had canned the previous summer.
We have a wonderful natural foods co-op in our small town, a thriving twice-weekly Farmer’s Market from October to May, and numerous small farms that offer CSAs. As we began to meet people and make friends, we started to notice that nearly everyone we connected with made the preparation of local, organic foods a big priority. As the seasons progressed, we heard about families pressing cider from their own apples, butchering chickens, and canning produce. One day an email came from a friend offering us a chance to purchase raw honey and beef that she and her husband had raised themselves. A few months later, another friend invited us to pick raspberries from her large garden.
As our freezer filled with grass-feed beef and berries, I found I no longer missed the pre-made meals in cardboard boxes with microwave heating instructions printed on the side. I wanted our family to eat differently and to understand where our food came from.
About a year after we had moved, we bought a 22-acre plot with a small cabin about 30 minutes from our house. It inspired my husband to begin building his mini fruit orchard. The first year he planted apple trees—a variety called “Freedom”, we noticed a teeny-tiny apple already attached to the tree.
For years I had bought apples in plastic bags from the grocery store, without much thought about their origin. Before we had children, I remember my husband pulling one from our fruit bowl to eat and then making a face after biting into it. “I can taste the pesticide in the skin,” he said. I tried a nibble of his and realized I too could taste the chemicals. We then made sure to purchase only organic apples, but I still never thought much about their long journey to our local store, the stickers that marked their original, often distant birthplace, sometimes a whole continent away.
Now that we had our own fruit trees, our children watched the development of this first apple in delight, while my husband gently warned that it might not progress into a real fruit like we were accustomed to. Since he wasn’t spraying the apples with pesticides, the apple might be misshapen or filled with worms.
We assured him, we didn’t care. Throughout the summer, we checked the apple. “It’s getting bigger,” my son would exclaim. “Look how hard it’s working!” It grew and grew, until one day it was finally ready to harvest.
We decided since our daughter was the youngest person, that she could be the one to pull the apple off the tree. She tugged and tugged and it finally came off, surprising her so much it slipped out of her hands into the newly cut grass.
She brushed off some of the grass clippings, and marveled at it. We were amazed—and I will admit that I am sometimes prone to hyperbole—but it really was the most perfect apple we’d ever seen. Symmetrical, with a deep red color touched by a few yellow-green dappled streaks, and not a worm hole or bruise in sight, it could have been a stand-in for the lethally beautiful fruit that tempted Snow White.
We all took turns holding it, and decided we would take it home and share it that evening. I’m not sure any apple has ever been so coddled and revered. My husband cut the apple into eight slices, passing out the creamy white pieces to each of us, with a bit of flourish and ceremony. My son insisted we all bite into the first piece at the same time. The flavor was light and sweet, and it was very juicy. We were sad when we finished it, and were not sure what to do with the core—it almost seemed it belonged in a place of honor rather than tossed onto the compost pile with broken eggshells and coffee grounds.
The following year, we watched and waited for apple blossoms, but none appeared. Our third year, the apple tree came out of its hibernation, and the small green knobs of fruit were clustered everywhere.
One day in the fall, my husband decided the fruit was ready—and our tree had grown so much that he needed a ladder to start picking.
The kids helped pick from the lower branches and filled a red tub high. We couldn’t believe how many there were, and recalled the third year “leap” of a new plant and decided it was true for apples—at least for our apples. My daughter was skeptical her brother was strong enough to carry the large tub himself, so she lent a hand.
We had so much fruit that year we felt rich, and we didn’t need to savor or split a single apple between ourselves. So without any special ceremony, my daughter plucked one out of the tub and began to enjoy it, the juice running down her chin. As she ate, she turned the apple around in her hands, noticing its flaws—a small wormhole here, the swirling grey dotted lines of an insect trail there.
“It’s not as pretty,” she admitted, “but it’s still really good.”
We harvested about 22 apples that fall, about a third of which were marred with worms or bruises. When we got home, we sliced off the bad parts, and tossed the remaining pieces into a pot with a a little water, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. As the apples cooked down, the steamy kitchen began to smell like fall. Later I ladled the chunky applesauce into bowls and we each ate a bowl and then had seconds. I thought about those apples we had tasted years ago, the skin treated with chemicals and wax, and felt very grateful.
This year, our trees have not been able to produce, so we’ll head to our local orchard or pick up a plastic bag of apples from the store. But we are looking forward to another fall season, when we can take pleasure in that first apple of our own tree – imperfections and all.
Alexandra White lives with her husband and two children in Northeast Iowa. She loves being outside, especially in the fall, otherwise known as “Apple Season”. By day she works as an IT operations consultant, and by evening and weekend she enjoys cooking, photography, and crafts. She writes about her family’s adventures at her blog, Talleygilly.