Growing up in apple country

(Photo by Lauren Thomas)

We couldn’t have been any closer to the apple farm unless we actually lived on the apple farm. We thought of it as an extension to our neighborhood, a communal park or “green space,” as planners now like to call it. I grew up on Cherry Hill Road in New Paltz in the 1970s and 1980s.

 I would learn years later that the cherry trees, my suburban street’s namesake, had suffered an agricultural blight at the turn of the century. There were no more cherry trees. One street over from us, however, was Apple Road, which bordered a real-life apple farm thick with living, breathing, blossoming apple trees. It was known to us as Moriello’s. 

The Moriellos were a multi-generational apple-farming family, whose fruit-bearing land was between the New Paltz High School on South Putt Corners Road and the state university, on Route 32 South. The DEC regional headquarters was wedged between South Putt Corners and Apple Road. Our neighborhood remained known as Cherry Hill. 

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Sure, there were other farms. Tons of them. This was apple country in the Hudson Valley, and one could not drive a mile in any direction without hitting one of these apple farms. From the Cherry Hill neighborhood perspective, Moriello’s farm was our backyard, our playground, our wonderland.

The farm had hills that provided sweeping views of the Shawangunk Ridge and the Mohonk Tower as well as a water tower owned and operated by the town. These hills served us well. In winter, we would track through the orchards past the water tower and up to the highest crest. Since I was the youngest kid, I always had to blaze the trail, lying on our wooden sleds with the sharp metal runners and trying to flatten out a path down the center of the hill. On either side of us were dark limbs blanketed by snow, reaching out like fingers or antlers, great for hanging a scarf or soaking wet gloves. 

This is how we spent our winter. Sledding up and down and jumping on top of one another or trying to play “King of the Mountain” and knock each other off of the sled while it was careening at full speed to the bottom of the orchard. We’d make obstacle courses throughout the lines of apple trees always trying to find a faster, steeper pitch from which to descend.

Hours would go by this way without snow pants or snow shoes or any form of winter protection save for the handknit scarves our mothers or grandmothers made and if they did not possess this domestic talent, then we’d get them from the annual Christmas Reformed Church Bizarre. We’d come home with our jeans soaking wet and our long johns stuck to our red skin, our fingers and toes numb and usually someone was fairly well cut up from the ice-crusted snow or the sharp blades of the sleds. 

When spring would come, the orchard was for tree climbing, hide and go seek, solo respites when family fights broke out and for the older, teenage kids, I imagine that there were some night time festivities by the water tower, as I would often hear parents whispering about the “goings on” of certain “kids” in the orchard at night, “partying,” or in some instances, “you-know-what.”

Nothing softened the remnants of a harsh winter or the heavy rains of April like the continual unfolding of apple blossoms in the late spring and early summer. Their buds, set at the terminal end of four-inch shoots would cluster forming natural bouquets of ornate pink blossoms that appeared almost like floral popcorn being held over a low heat. Depending on the variety they transformed from a blush pink to a bridal white creating canopies of flowers stretched out in long rows with green grass and fields of mustard-colored dandelions. 

The smell of the blossoms was both intoxicating and seductive, making you hungry for something that you couldn’t name, some sweetness that existed on a hidden shelf.  I loved falling asleep with my windows open and having that smell drift in and settle over my bare arms like a soft sheet. As these blossoms were pervasive and symbolic of heady love and fertility, honored by the ancient Celts as a symbol of love and decorating royal bedchambers, it was no wonder that some of the teenagers were rumored to have had various trysts between the rows of Red Delicious and Goldrush apple trees. 

 Although new varieties are created every few years, growing up we knew our standard apples by their shapes, colors, peak picking time and of course, taste. It was easy to tell a McIntosh which ripened in September from a Cortland apple (slightly bitter and perfect for apple crisp) which started falling from the trees in mid-to-late September from say an earthly and gritty Macoun or the sinfully sweet and pale-green colored Golden Delicious apples. There were Red Delicious (pretty to look at but not nearly as sweet as their golden sisters) and Fujis, filling out in late October, not to mention the crisp, bitter-sweet Granny Smiths in early November. When apple season started in late summer into the first frost in November, we lived, breathed and ate, almost nothing but apples.

On weekends, our family would go apple picking, usually at the Moriellos or if we were feeling particularly adventurous, we might make the two-mile drive to Dressel farms on Route 208 (where we had recently picked-our-own strawberries). Or towards the mountain on 44/55 where we would try and spot rock-climbers on the West Trapps cliff face while picking as many apples as our burlap sack would allow and dipping our fingers into newly opened jars of local honey at Jenkins Lueken orchards. There were hay-rides and hot, just-out-of-the-oven cider donuts made either with powdered white sugar or cinnamon sugar, either one leaving a residue of sweetness on our flannel shirts and corduroy jeans or denim overalls. 

There was the old 1951 firetruck at the Moriello farm stand that took locals and some visitors up and down the hill, where we’d disembark to find that sought after perfect apple with no bruises, no warts, no worms and hopefully no bees (always a common hazard of apple picking were the bee stings.)

Once we brought them home, it started. We’d begin with fresh apple crisp, a highly anticipated dessert made with fresh oats and brown sugar and Cortland apples. If it were a special night, maybe 60 Minutes was on or a football game of some importance, we’d have vanilla ice-cream scoops on top, it melting into the sweetening pool of cinnamon, butter, apple sauce that we’d lick clean from our bowls. There was hardly a dinner that went by without freshly made apple sauce, stirred by my mother’s hand, as well as slices of apple bread to take to school or to have upon our return from school, and then there was the caramel-coated apples that some of our neighbors handed out on Halloween, my parents cautioning me not to break my teeth on them.  

Then there was apple cider, hot mulled apple cider and sparking cider that was reserved for adults. 

There were sliced apples, apples and cheese, dried apples and the apples we’d just pluck off a tree on our way to a game of tag or the rotten apples we’d pick from the ground and hurl at each other. Here’s the thing, just when you’d swear to yourself that you’d never eat another apple again as long as you lived, you’d find yourself unconsciously wiping one off on your wool sweater and breaking that tawny skin with the juice splattering your upper lip before you realized it. It was fall in apple country and it smelled of damp leaves, chimney smoke, nutmeg, cloves and molten apples. It was a comforting smell, so much so that while running through the apple orchards for cross-country running, doing hill training, we’d just put our mouths and noses into our jerseys as the crop-duster flew over head and coated us in a white powdered pesticide blanket. We’d laugh and keep running once the coast was clear of falling spray. 

There were all kinds of apple orchard lore. That if you tried to steal an apple from the tree that one of the Jamaican migrant workers would shoot you from his front porch. If Tony Moriello (the family patriarch) caught you doing something “bad” in the orchards, drinking or smooching or smoking funny stuff that the cops would rappell down from the water tower and cart you away to jail. There were fox dens to be careful of (though we never actually saw one) there were “magic” trees that would grant your wishes and bewitched trees that could put warts on your face. Basically, the orchards were places where the imagination ran wild and where nature, like the human spirit was allowed to roam somewhat managed but never quite contained.

And maybe that’s why those memories are so seared into my mind. As kids, we spent our time in those rows of awkward ballet-dancing trees, heavy with fruit, showy with blossoms, haunting in their winter bareness, hopeful in their clustering buds. It was unimaginable to me that I might someday lift my own kids onto that firetruck-tractor and head up the hill where so many apples awaited small hands to choose them.

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