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November 30, 2006

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The Apple Dinner


If Thanksgiving is, fundamentally, a celebration of the harvest, then there was not much of a harvest at my family's Thanksgiving feast. The Brussels sprouts I planted last summer leafed out as soon as the weather turned cold, and then the cabbage lopers arrived, carving intricate lace patterns into every leaf. Although the little green caterpillars could have been stopped with a few squirts of Bt, an organic pesticide, I was too fascinated by the process to intervene. Here were these tiny green creatures, growing slowly to maturity on my cabbage crops, and in the spring they'd turn into white moths that I couldn't help but love, in spite of their cruel intentions toward my vegetable patch.

The process was made all the more fascinating by the fact that every time my Araucana chicken, Dolley, got hold of one, she'd make the most remarkable series of sounds, like nothing I'd ever heard from her, as if the words for "Look, I found a cabbage loper" had been imprinted in her bird brain all along, and she was just waiting for a little green worm to come along and set them free. She'd carry the doomed creature around and show it to each of the other three hens, dropping it in front of them and making that strange little sound, as if she were the maitre'd announcing the day's specials. The other girls feigned indifference and went back to scratching for sowbugs, leaving Dolley free to devour her prey.

So -- no Brussels sprouts from the garden. The beets didn't make it in time, either. I never got around to squash. In short, none of our traditional Thanksgiving dishes came from my garden. It may be a harvest dinner, but apart from a token sage leaf here and there, it wasn't my harvest.

But just before Thanksgiving rolled around, I got to tag along for a true harvest dinner: a celebration of the apple crop. My solitary Honeycrisp tree is nothing special, and it stopped producing apples long before the dinner was scheduled, but somehow I was lucky enough to get invited anyway. Every course would include apples, and everybody would bring something from their apple harvest to share. Our hosts wisely assigned us the task of bringing booze. We ordered four kinds of hard cider, a bottle of calvados (apple brandy) and apple ice wine, an ambrosial drink made with the fermented juice of pressed frozen apples. The growers brought desserts and fresh apples to taste, and our hosts made a soup with butternut squash and apples, a chicken-and-apple dish, a kind of spanakopita with apples mixed in with the spinach, and a salad.

You can learn a lot from tasting apples with apple growers. It goes without saying that not all apples are created equal. Some varieties are good baking apples, some are good eating apples, some are long keepers, others should be eaten straight off the tree. But what I also realized is that the same variety can taste entirely different from one orchard to the next, and even from one side of the tree to the other. An apple from the north side of the tree might get less sunlight, more dew, and cooler temperatures. That changes the color, the size, the flavor, the texture, and the harvest date. When somebody pulled out a Braeburn, a pretty common grocery store apple, the other growers all wanted to try it. It's not an obscure apple, but they all understood that this apple, from this tree and this harvest season, was unique. Sure enough, it was bright and crisp and almost floral -- nothing like the bins of Braeburns at the supermarket.

You wouldn't think I'd remember much from our Calvados-fueled dinner conversation, but I managed to swipe a few growing tips that you can use in your own backyard:

It's all about the pollinators, baby. If you've got any kind of an orchard at all, you're probably involved in some kind of bee recruitment activities. You might be renting a couple hives from a local beekeeper, or you might be raising orchard mason bees, a kind of solitary native bee that bumbles happily around the garden and rarely stings. (Mason bee kits are available in a few shops around town and online; if you'd like to get into bees but you don't want to manage a hive, this is the deal for you.) Make a note of what's blooming in your garden (even if it's a weed) just before your fruit trees start to bloom; that's the food source that will lure pollinators your way. On the other hand, you don't want to provide too many distractions -- one grower said that he will mow down a blooming cover crop when the apple trees start to bloom to make sure the bees focus on the fruit.

A little Serenade goes a long way. Serenade is an organic biological fungicide that's safe to use right up to the day of harvest. It works against a variety of common plant diseases, including various blights, molds, mildews and scabs. You can find it in shops around town, or order it online at

Every season is different. An apple that blows you away one year might be boring the next. A tree that is usually the first to bear fruit in September might drag its feet the following year. Growers, it seemed to me, could use a support group: They were all relieved to find that they'd each been fighting the same kinds of battles in their orchards this year. Blame it on the weather, the bees or the life cycle of some maddening pest -- but growing fruit is a good way to remember that you're not always in control.

Above all, buy local. Forget those big ol' bins of New Zealand Fujis in the supermarket. Sure, a local apple might cost a little more, but let's face it -- your apple budget isn't what's breaking the bank. Nobody ever got evicted because they spent too much on apples and couldn't pay their rent. Every time you bite into a local apple, you're tasting Humboldt County, and let me tell you, it's mighty good.

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