“Kay-Lee Baffa Hartford!” Uncle Carl irritably said walking towards me from the direction of the orchard. “Why didn’t I know about all these fruit trees?!”
It was early morning and I was still antsy about having so many of the family here at one time so my response wasn’t what you might call diplomatic in nature. “I don’t know because it isn’t like I haven’t been giving all the fruit away I can convince people to take on canning days. Need some coffee?”
Aunt Pearl rolled her eyes, laughed, and said, “You’ve got his number Kay-Lee. I don’t know who is worse, Carl or Sawyer. I’d say it was Ray if he was still with us. That man needed a whole pot of strong and black before he was even willing to think about being human.”
Sawyer came out onto the porch as soon as he heard Uncle Carl’s first bellow and before he could give some blow back I stuck the pot I had just used to fill that man’s mug under his nose and he followed me into the house like the aroma of fresh brewed coffee was a hook through his nostril. I heard some good natured laughing behind us but it didn’t stop me from making sure that I filled the biggest coffee cup we had in the house and tell Sawyer to drink up. Sawyer had fallen in love with the ugly monstrosity at one of our thrift store runs and it doubled as a soup mug when he wasn’t using it to chug his black brew.
I went back to the kitchen to start another pot but Aunt Pearl said, “Don’t bother Honey. Let ‘em work the evil out chopping wood or clearing the trees. We do not have time for people to throw an attitude and be coddled. All of us need to cut back before we have to; it’s not like there is going to be a coffee fairy to bring us any when the stores run out. Why don’t you show me which trees you don’t mind us gleaning today.”
“Aunt Pearl the family should take whatever they need. I’ve got a lot already. And wasting food makes me itch.”
Linda stepped into the kitchen and said, “She isn’t telling stories Aunt Pearl. She got hives one time walking into the teachers’ lounge and seeing all they’d let go bad. I think that’s when she went into battle to try and get it changed to giving it to the football players and other jocks.”
I rolled my eyes. “It wasn’t a battle. I just talked to Coach.” And to quickly change the subject I asked, “What are those things? Aren’t they wine presses?”
Uncle Carl who had come in looking chagrined at his earlier behavior said, “They’re fruit presses Honey, though they can be used for wine making right enough. C’mon and I’ll show you how they work.”
He insisted on helping me down the stairs and as he did so leaned over and whispered, “Shouldn’t have cracked the whip like that. But I’m with you, I hate waste.”
“Then let’s not let there be any. You tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Though I warn you, Aunt Pearl has already cut off the coffee supply. I think she’s on the warpath again.”
He got a very innocent look on his face and said quietly, “She had to wait on a few of the kids that she didn’t feel she should have had to wait on. But if I were you, I wouldn’t mention it. There’re some touchy for no reason and it ain’t just the kids. Dad changing plans in mid-squat like this has gotten the fur up of more than a few.”
Uncle Carl’s wife was a short woman everyone called “Dump”. It was short for Dumpling and apparently what she’d been called her whole life. When I asked what her real name was I got a few warnings not to ask again because apparently Aunt Dump considered it so horrible that she’d forbidden anyone to mention it. Aunt Dump came baring down on us to ask me, “You really mean for us to pick what we need?”
“Yes ma’am. I’ve been trying and trying on canning days but I think people must have thought I was kidding. I know everyone was so busy no one strayed far from the house to see how many trees there really are. I just can’t keep up with all the apple and pear trees. Mr. Baffa apparently planted the whole orchard back before he got sick with the intention of starting a farmer’s market or maybe selling at one or something. He wasn’t real clear in his notes which it was. But as you can see he didn’t do any such thing. Either way Sawyer thinks this may be the first full harvest from all the trees at once and I just don’t know how to … well … it’s a mess and I’m not sure what to do about it and Sawyer just looks at me and says ‘eat ‘em’.”
Aunt Dump nodded and then turned like a Battalion Commander and said, “Kids! Line up!” She proceeded to put them into groups and lead them out into the orchard.
“Whew,” I muttered under my breath.
Uncle Carl looked at me and winked and said, “Uh huh. Now let’s show you how these things work.”
Basically the short version is you pick the fruit then wash it to get rid of dirt and bugs, pick out the wood stems and leaves, cut the bad places out if need be, and then dump them into a hopper that directs them into a grinder that coarsely chops the fruit … peels, steeds, and fruit … and then drops it into a bucket that is nothing but slats that has been lined with this really fine mesh made of nylon. Uncle Carl said in the old days you would use cheesecloth but it was a messy business and the nylon mesh bags were re-usable and didn’t soak up any of the juice.
Once the slatted bucket was full a pressing plate was placed on top and then the pressing screw was turned. As the press squishes the fruit in the tub the juice comes out of the bottom and is funneled into another bucket. When the pressing is finished and all of the juice is squeezed out you are left with the very compacted remains of fruit. It is dense and heavy and called pomace.
The long version is everyone has their own way of doing things and I decided to stay out of it and watch rather than get drawn into some of the good-natured – and not so good-natured – rivalries.
After the first few batches of apples were run through, the resulting pomace was put into a big tub and covered with water and left to rehydrate overnight. Tomorrow it will be run through the press first thing in the morning and the resulting weak cider is called “Ciderkin” and will be used for the kids to drink the rest of the weekend to save the full strength for bottling and for turning into “hard cider” or fermented cider. The kids told me it was like apple-flavored Kool-Aid and to them it was one of the best things of the family harvest day.
Aunt Suzanne told me, “When I was a girl we used to give the fruit pomace to the chickens and pigs but supposedly the animals can eat too many seeds and die.”
“Is it true?”
“Wellll, I think mostly these days we can afford store bought feed so we don’t do it but better safe than sorry. They use it to feed cattle with but a cows got more than one stomach and processes what they eat different. They’re also some bigger than other animals with makes a difference too. Nowadays we just throw it on the compost pile. I see you’ve got a great big one started out yonder behind the barn. I was wondering where all the peels and such were going from canning days. I don’t think your pile is going to hold all the pomace we make this weekend. We’ll get about five gallons of pomace per hundred pounds of apples. We might have to piece it out.”
“Whatever you think best. Sawyer already had to use that metal security net that used to cover the outside tractor implements to cover the pile a few times because the raccoons and other animals were getting into it.”
“Too much fruit in the pile. I’ll have some of the kids that can’t climb trees rake up some of that cut, dried grass out of the orchard and we’ll throw it in layers with the pomace. That should help some. It’ll cut down on the vinegar smell as well as the pile ferments.”
We had multiple presses running split evenly between apples and pears except for a couple that didn’t have grinders on them that were used to press grapes. Not just the remaining grapes from our vines, but bushels of grapes brought by the rest of the Hartfords.
However even with all of that activity going at the same time, pressing the apples and pears and grapes to get their juice was only part of the process. Oh no, nothing can ever be simple. And to be honest watching some of the other men and women get all persnickety about the varieties and amount of fruit used in each pressing came close to giving me a headache. The same kind of headache I would get when we would have a guest speaker who was a chef or some other kind of cook that insisted on turning a simple chore into a science experiment with all sorts of secret ingredients and ways of doing things. I know some people get a real charge out of that but I don’t. Just press the doggone fruit and then give it to me to bottle up. It all gets drank by the same orifice and comes out the same end. The point is to make people happy with a full belly, not to make people worship the ground you walk on because you are some kind of food wizard.
When the aunts and uncles started squabbling I left the scene and headed indoors where I could actually get some work done. After reading a lot of different sources and talking to the aunts I decided I was going to do up our share of the apple juice three ways. First I was going to leave it completely natural. This juice would have the most solids in it. Next I was going to strain the juice through several layers of cheese cloth. This would leave some solids but they mostly settle to the bottom of gallon and half-gallon jars and jugs that it would be stored in. The last type was filtered apple juice and this would leave the clearest juice with almost no visible solids. I was using a water filter pitcher that I had lined with coffee filters. I would store some of this in pints for drinking or using in cooking but a lot of the filtered juice I was going to make into apply jelly. I have hopes that by using filtered juice I would get a clearer, prettier jelly than the cloudy stuff that I had made thus far. Of course before I could get to that point I would have to process everything in a boiling water bath canner.
Pears I wasn’t going to be so choosey about. Sawyer had told me that he preferred a “full bodied” pear nectar rather than what he considered a thinned out juice so that is what I was going to give him. I wasn’t going to filter the pear juice at all but bottle it up au natural by the quart. Mrs. Penny – who showed up with Delly and Burt and their kids about midmorning bringing a big cooker and an untold number of frozen burger patties that Burt had taken in payment for helping out someone he knew at the meat packing plant – told me to run some of the dessert pears through my electric juicer and then use that to make jelly. She said it was real light and sweet and worked well on a relish tray as well.
“And between me and you, if you just happen to let a few hot peppers fall in your jelly making juice you’ll probably have to fight the men off at the next dinner on the grounds. They get downright silly over it and I wouldn’t mind sharing all the trouble they try to bring me.”
I had no idea whatsoever to say to that but I couldn’t imagine that Sawyer would care for it too much so while I might try the hot pepper idea, I’d save it all for him. I can barely keep up with Sawyer’s silliness, I can’t imagine being open to wanting more from anyone else even if they were willing to be silly with Igor Baffa.
Uncle Carl and Gramps seemed to be everywhere at the same time. Most families had at least one press and it required the kids working at top speed to keep up with the demands for fruit, especially if they had an electric motor on the fly wheel of the grinder. Mid-afternoon many of the youngest children could be found on the front porch napping. Jeannie and Cindy were watching over them because they weren’t able to really do much. Cutter and Davis were forever running around the front to see if they needed anything. Gramps eventually got so irritated with the fact they weren’t staying focused that he sent them back to his place to pick up the next trailer load of apples from his part of the farm.
It didn’t take long for the juicing to get ahead of our ability to get it processed but then up the road came a truck that turned out to be driven by Toby. “Hey Ho the Hartford Clan!!”
An older man stepped out after Toby got the door open and though I didn’t really get introduced as I was in the middle of helping Burt get a big kettle of baked beans onto the grill to heat up and cutting up some of my own bread and butter pickles for relish.
Sawyer ran over and asked, “You gonna kill me if I take another five hundred pounds of peanuts from Toby?”
Giving him the eye I said, “I will if you don’t share them with your family. What on earth would we do with that many peanuts anyway?!”
He grinned, winked, and then headed back to where some of the men were conferring. I eventually found out that Toby’s grandfather was going to take most of the apple pomace off our hands and use it for feed for his pregnant cattle. He also wanted several bushels of whole apples and some fresh apple cider. In exchange he is going to barter the peanuts, a half of beef (we have to get Uncle James to help cut it for us), and some hard cheeses. The cheeses are still green and require aging but I’m so not complaining about that.
I was spooning the baked beans onto plates at dinner time when Gramps came through the line and asked me, “Baby Girl, you really mean to share out those peanuts?”
“Gramps, I’ve already dealt with five hundred pounds of peanuts. I’ve boiled and canned them green. I’ve shelled them and roasted them and then oven canned them in hopes they’ll last a while. I’ve boiled and flavored them and then canned that up. If you want you can stick your head down in the basement and take a look at what five hundred pounds of peanuts looks like. The very idea of dealing with another five hundred …” I shuddered.
Gramps smiled real big. “Well now, that’s a fine thing. And I may just have Sawyer do some more bartering for the family. Hasn’t done too badly.”
Burt was putting burgers and dogs on plates as fast as I was putting beans and he said, “I’m not surprised. He’s done doggone good on the few of the runs I sent him out on. Came back with more than I expected and spent less for it. And with the economy being the way it is, it’s much appreciated.”
After the servers had gotten their chance to eat I quietly went over to Burt and said, “I … I haven’t quite known how to ask how your brother is. I guess you know that Sawyer gets tight lipped when his name comes up but if I had a brother, even if he was a problem child, I’d still wish things were different.”
“Mason isn’t a child but he is a problem. However, you’re right. I do wish things were different but he’s picked his path and I’m not going to be blind to it any more. I tried to talk to him, tell him when he got out I’d try and get him some help but all he did was get in some trouble in County and get transferred to the state pen. Even with overcrowding and good behavior he’s going to be in there at least a year. I can’t imagine what our parents would say.”
“Maybe this will be his wake up call.” But even Burt could hear the doubt in my voice.
“Guess you saw some rough stuff in foster care. Had a guy used to work for me that spent most of his early life in and out until his grandparents got the courts to let them adopt him. He told some stories I wouldn’t repeat in polite company.”
“Not all foster families are bad any more than all bio families are good. Most of the bad stuff happens because the courts or the social workers give bio parents a lot of rope to hang themselves with. But it is a Catch-22. Then again maybe I shouldn’t talk; there was no way I was ever going to get adopted and get a supposedly normal family life anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
“For one the courts would have always found some excuse for it. That stupid trust fund that has a lot of sticky fingers all over it. Two, my medical needs up until a couple of years ago were more than most families could handle. But that’s all in the past and things are different now. That’s how I’m going to look at it and I’m going to make the best of it that I can and be the best that I can even if it falls shy of what others can do. Maybe Mason can get a clue and realize the same thing. He can start over, it won’t be easy, it may never be what it could have been, but it sure doesn’t have to be terrible.”
Burt looked at me, snorted, and said, “From your lips to God’s ears … and into Mason’s hard head.”
Sawyer picked that moment to come around the corner of the house, hear Mason’s name and snarl, “What about Mason?”
I turned and gave him a look that said mind his p’s and q’s. “Mason needs to be prayed for. He’s picked a hard road and is making it harder still and it makes the people who care about him very sad so they need prayers too.”
Sawyer glowered but closed his mouth and instead grabbed a hot dog and started to load it up. After a moment he asked Burt, “Everything OK?”
“Is. Will be. Has to be. Believe I’ll go make sure your sister hasn’t been on her feet too long. She’s wilting earlier in the day even though it’s not as hot as it has been.”
After Burt was out of ear shot I told him thank you and then explained about Mason digging his hole deeper and deeper. Sawyer sighed and shook his head. “I don’t want to feel sorry for him but …”
“Then don’t. Feeling sorry for someone never does any good and usually winds up making things worse. But you might say a prayer for him. Brother Don says we don’t forgive people for their sake but for our sake because carrying around a bunch of garbage is bad for us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and just about every other way too. Plus he said God says we have to if we want to be forgiven. And if Brother Don is right and God sees all sins equally then maybe we need to tread real carefully when we say someone is worse than we are. That’s how I’m trying to see all those people who’ve been … well call it what it was, they were unkind, the exact opposite of what your family has been to me. I’m tired of … of having all that stuff hold me back and drag me down. I like our life Sawyer and I don’t want to taint it by bringing all the old garbage with me. That’d be like grinding worms with the apples for the fruit press. You might not be able to tell there are worm bits in there but it would still spoil the juice all the same.”
“Damn sure would,” he said making a face. Then he leaned over and kissed me full on the lips. “I don’t want ‘worm bits’ floating in our juice either. But this is a hard grudge Kay-Lee and it isn’t going to go away overnight.”
“Fair enough. It’s not like it’s real easy to just put all of my insecurities aside and go with the flow that’s happening between us. Let’s just try and not let old ‘worm bits’ get in the way and spoil things.”
“You telling me to cut Burt some slack?”
“I’m not telling you anything Sawyer. You don’t need me to.”
“Uh huh,” he said but rather than being mad he slowly grinned. “Tell you what, I’ll go see if Burt needs some help getting that monster cooker cleaned up.”
I got another kiss from Sawyer and watched him walk away and wondered if I would ever be able to forgive anyone that separated me from him and found that maybe I was being more than a little self-righteous telling Sawyer the things the preacher said. I’m not sure I would be able to forgive someone that did that to us.