Monday, January 7, 2013

A Gift of Stayman's Winesaps

I got out my Imperial Veri-Sharp paring knife with the stainless steel blade. My grandmother would have approved. To her mind, stainless was next to godliness: it lasted forever and was easy to keep clean. As a Trustee of her local hospital in the 1950s, she insisted that all the new sinks be stainless steel.

I selected one of the Stayman's Winesaps. They were my grandmother’s favorite apple; she said that a “Delicious apple” was an oxymoron. When I learned Otis and Barbara had one of the trees in their Boise backyard, I banished politeness and asked for some of the fruit.

I rinsed off the faint wash of white clay that dulled the apple’s skin. Otis meant to spray the fruit with kaolin clay every two weeks. But he often let a bit more time pass before he got out his hand pump sprayer and applied another coat. Insects hoping for a meal of apples, or to lay eggs in their flesh, don’t like walking or crawling through the clay particles. They leave clay-covered fruits alone.

I cut around the apple’s meridian from the top to the blossom end and back up the other side. Then I trimmed away the stem and the remains of the dried blossom from each half and carefully cut around the core, or pome, which gives apples, pears, and quince their name (“pome fruit”). When she cored an apple, my grandmother left a smooth, shallow dimple. I tend to gouge out uneven divots that take some of the flesh, too: I waste good food. I can still hear my grandmother chide me whenever I reach for a vegetable peeler instead of a knife: “Peelers waste so much.”

She served chicken on one of my visits. I thought I did a fine job of cleaning my plate: I left a pile of bones connected by ligaments, tendons, and a few shreds of meat in the hard-to-reach places. My grandmother reduced her chicken to a pile of clean, dry, disarticulated bones that would have inspired a colony of dermestid beetles to work longer hours.

Otis had ensured that their tree produced good-sized Stayman’s Winesap apples, so I cut each half into slices. Standing on his tripod orchard ladder, he had thinned the fruit when the developing apples were about the size of one of his fingernails. He removed all but one from each cluster of flowers; if there were still too many fruits along a branch, he removed entire clusters.

Biting into the first slice, I tasted the pink and white perfume of last spring’s apple blossoms. Bee legs tickled the inside of my cheek and a pollen basket might have brushed my tongue. That bee, or another one, must have spilled a few grains of pollen from one of its baskets onto the flower that produced the apple I was eating.

Most of the foods we eat, other than grains (corn, wheat, barley, etc.), must be pollinated by insects, and bees do most of the work. Whenever I see a truck loaded with hives of honeybees on their way to a pollinating job, I can’t resist waving. I wave and I worry about the bees’ dwindling numbers, as Colony Collapse Disorder ravages hives across the country. Researchers don’t completely understand the cause, or treatment, of the disorder: disease, stress, and pesticides are all suspects.

I ate the Stayman's Winesap slowly. All things in moderation; don’t be greedy; live within your means. My grandmother lived within her means. When my brothers and I were kids, she lived in the house her grandfather built in 1873. We assumed everyone’s grandmother had a commode chair with a chamber pot in the downstairs bedroom and a wood-burning range in the kitchen.

When she was 80, my grandmother built a new house, after realizing it would be cheaper than fixing up her old one. Her new house had hardwood floors, marble windowsills, thermal pane windows, a tiled fireplace hearth with a mantelpiece made from a maple tree that grew in her woods, and a small greenhouse off the garage. Her new house did not have a mortgage.

The wood-burning range went into the basement of her new house, “for when the power goes out.” The refrigerator wasn’t worn out yet, so she put it in the basement, too, and stored apples and other fruit in it. As I swallowed the last bite of my first Stayman’s Winesap, I remembered my grandmother's new kitchen. She bought a new fridge, an electric range, and her first dishwasher. The range and the dishwasher were clad in stainless steel.

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More about apples

The apples we see in the grocery store are only a tiny sample of the thousands of varieties that exist. Orchards planted by early European settlers in Idaho contain valuable genetic resources. Learn how this diversity is being cataloged and preserved here.

European honeybees, which travel from orchard to orchard in hives, aren't our only pollinators. Learn more about our 4,000 species of native bees here.