Nothing beats Michigan in the fall. Crops are being harvested, the trees are beautiful, the weather is perfect and the absence of the August heat makes me feel like baking. Something with pumpkin or apples of course. Apple dumplings used to be my specialty until I decided I didn’t have time for them or need the calories. My favorite fall treat is apple sauce donuts. Although Michigan is full of very cool cider mills, we don’t have one near us so I have to settle with what Family Fare or Meijer have to offer.
September is when the majority of our family has birthdays so it’s an expensive month. My mom, Scott, my son, my daughter, my step-son and now only grandchild are all September babies. With both my children I felt like I went into the hospital in the summer and came home in the fall. Seasons can change in a day here; and more often than not – change back again after a few days.
While September means birthdays, October means Cider Making Day at my parents. A day almost better than Christmas. Great fun, food and conversation. After missing the wedding and so many other things over the past few months, it was great that Scott was feeling well enough to go with me a couple weekends ago. This year was super warm; making it a little scarier with all the bees being very active. Growing up picking apples on my dad’s little orchard I was always getting stung in the hands. A tug of war with a downed apple that I was sure to lose. The more I got stung the worst the reaction.
It was also the first year that my grand-daughter was able to participate. Last year she joined us but was just a wee one all wrapped up in her snuggly blankets. This year she came ready to work. Or at least get herself all wet. My son was busy trying to keep her from climbing into the apple washing bucket; the girl loves the water. She’s going to be good help one of these days.
I’m not sure where my dad got the original plan or idea for the mill but back then it certainly wasn’t from pinterest or a youtube video. Like everything he has, it’s pretty much all home made. Back in the early days, the press sat outside and apples were actually pressed with a big wheel that was hand cranked to squeeze the chopped apples. I think originally pails of apples were dumped into the home-made grinder from a ladder. Now it has an elevator and a hopper that we load. A motor powers the crushing so we can get more juice than we could with man power. Today it resides in what else but “The Cider Shed”. A single garage style building with a big apple painted on the roll-up door that I first painted in high school; a mere forty some years ago. The trap door in the floor leading to the storage of “the good stuff”. I haven’t been down there in years but it used to house the hard cider and barrels of home-made wine.
Everyone mans a post; apple washing/rinsing and keeping the hopper full. Dad manages the mechanical part of the process. After pressing, the apple mash requires some brute force to get it out of the pressing bucket and into the trailer. It takes a couple more people to manage the straining and jugging of the fresh cider. Tasting is everyone’s job.
It wouldn’t be a family get together without great food. Dad’s always tweeking the equipment and the we’ve made some changes to the after-pressing meal. Last year we had a soup bar and this year a taco bar. It’s always near my sister’s birthday so it includes a yummy desert as well. If you go hungry there, it’s clearly your own fault.
One year, it almost didn’t happen. Dad ended up in the hospital with appendicitis. Apples were picked and he had already promised cider to the local museum. They were needing it to make apple butter for a fund raiser. In a panic, he dictated notes to my mom from the hospital bed. Much to his surprise, between us we had all paid enough attention that we managed to pull it off. Crisis averted.
There’s something really special about getting together as a family and making a product. Especially this year when cider at the grocery store was running about $6.99/gallon and it tastes terrible after you’ve been raised on the good stuff. Scott could watch and help take pictures but he couldn’t drink the cider because it’s not pasturized. It’s never sold, only given to those that help make it or donate apples for the pressing.
Some of my favorite photos come from this day. Typically I enjoy taking pictures and seeing everyone congregate and catch-up with one another. This year I over-saw the mixing process; making sure each batch has a mixture of apples to insure the most flavor, some varieties are sweeter, some juicier and the right mix has to include a few tart apples too. Scott took over my photo detail. Along with the fun comes a little sadness. Remembering the people that have enjoyed our event with us in the past. My uncle just passed away this fall. I have memories of him helping back when the press was still at my grandparent’s place as well as coming out to watch over the years. My parents’ neighbor Dave was always very enthusiastic about being part of the process; and he passed away a few years ago after becoming a regular helper. Now we add new spouses and the next generation of apple pickers to the mix. Many hands make light work.
It’s hard to believe that it’s November already. Scott is post-transplant day 80. After weeks of bonus high temperatures, today feels like fall is here. The wind has picked up and it’s spitting rain. I had some apples left over from cider making and an about to expire (well – you got me – past date cake mix from the store shelf) and I threw together a dump cake for a snack when the kids come over later today. If it doesn’t turn out, at least the house will smell good. Today is a homecoming of sorts. Scott’s daughter is bringing our dog Zeus back home.
It’s been hard not seeing the kids like we are used to and equally hard to not have our dog with us. After all, he’s the only child we have together. He’s been in excellent care; to the extent that we’re a little worried that he won’t want to stay home with us. Being that we got him as a rescue dog, I’ve been imaging what he’s thinking. I’m sure he’s like “Wow, I can’t believe this – I thought those people really liked me. I only peed on the floor a couple times, and I never chewed my toys or ate shoes or anything………well at least they didn’t leave me along side of the road like those other people. I’ve stayed at this other place before and the lady here practically smothers me with hugs and kisses. They complain about my gassy stomach but they give me lots of treats and there’s places to explore. The other dog here is pretty chill and we pretty much just ignore each other. The cat likes to snuggle with me so I let her.”
Then there’s when they drive in the driveway and he realizes he’s back. “Oh my God, they aren’t dead! I’m back! What the heck??” And maybe even “Man, dad looks way different, but he sounds the same. I wonder if something happened to him and that’s why I had to go away?” I think he probably knows, it seems that dogs are very receptive when their humans are sick.
We will have to adjust to having him around again. Remembering to find him a sitter on check-up days and getting up during the night to let him out. Remembering the joys of stinky dog breath and his silent and deadly toots. Our chicken, Lucky, will have her buddy back. The resident woodchuck that has been illuding all the traps will have to be a little more careful; the pooch is back on yard patrol.