I grew up well east of Seattle, pretty much in the center of Washington State, in an area known as the Columbia River Basin. My sister and I lived for several years in Wenatchee, “The Apple Capital of the World” with our dad. My mom lived about 90 miles north in Okanogan County, a/k/a “Gateway to the Inland Empire”.
The land is wild and rough up there, near the Canadian border and square in the middle of nowhere between the high Cascades and the Rockies, so they are entitled to superlatives.
Wenatchee is situated in a valley, just east of the Cascades. The Columbia River flows through the town, dividing East Wenatchee (the newer side) to Wenatchee (the pioneer side). I dearly love that river. It led north to my mom and my Aunt Peggy and my cousins and to Omak, where they all lived, a rundown cowboy town I’ve romanticized and adored since my first visit. When I was younger, I considered Omak home, until I moved so many places and lived in so many different homes, that “home” now is more a state of mind and a place of refuge than it is a town.
Railroad tracks run right through Wenatchee, along each side of the river. Since the sound of the BNSF train whistle marked many an occasion in my childhood days (wake up, lunch, bedtime, just fell asleep and there goes that whistle) and since the railroad tracks seemed to me the path to Staying Here or Leaving Here, they shape the town in my mind.
I want to not love Wenatchee, but I do. It’s old and run-down in some areas, but a yuppie, outdoorsy suburb in others. It is also one of the largest towns between Seattle and Spokane, which isn’t really its greatest claim to fame. Apples are.
Wenatchee and the villages that surround it—Entiat, Cashmere, Dryden, Pateros—are encompassed by orchards—rows upon rows of green mark the edge of town and seem to form a protective moat from encroachment of the rugged land beyond, which is colored by dust and stone.
In fact, you may be holding a taste of Wenatchee in your hand when you eat an apple this fall. Washington State produces 56% of all apples grown in the United States. Orchards send their fruit to processing companies who market, store and ship apples all over the country. Check the sticker on your fruit: if the processor is Stemilt, your apple is most likely from the Okanagan, Yakima or Wenatchee valleys.
I grew up with apples. Literally. When people think of Washington State, which produces 56% of our country’s apples, they think of rain and possibly the Space Needle. But where I’m from—North Central Washington– evergreen forests and grey fog give way to 364 days of sunshine and the rocky, dry riverbeds of the Columbia Basin, blanketed not in emerald green but in sagebrush and scrub. Alpine crags and deep valleys shadow steep brown hills and sandy riverside flats, which are quilted with orchards. The high desert offers warm days and cool nights, perfect for growing fruit.
We had an apple orchard next door. The Yancy’s. A lovely old couple, the Yancy’s were the picture of grand-parently patience and care. Their lawn was immaculate, their orchard a vision of irrigated green, the quintessence of stately, organized elegance next to our ramshackle, dusty farm. Five kids and two toddlers ran wildly and without supervision through their orchard, and they didn’t blink an eye.
The sound of tractors, sprayers, sprinklers and bugs from all those orchards pervaded most of our childhood memories and were as much a part of our souls and sense of belonging as were the open skies and wild mountains. We slyly picked fallen apples from the roadside on childhood adventures—stealing apples from the ground felt like serious business and still seems a major transgression, but it was exciting then. We played in the cool of the orchards, climbing branches as high as we could, settling into a comfortable splint for a quiet afternoon read. We played hide-and-seek, evading chores and parents and all responsibility. Splashing through sprinklers and evading the bees, we breathed in that deep scent of fertilizer and bug spray like it was perfume.
When apples were in season we were expected to pick a basket or two after school so my mom could put up applesauce, apple pie filling and jar upon jar of apple butter. Feeding seven kids and a man with two or sometimes three jobs was much easier during apple season.
An apple shipped from continents and even seasons away simply cannot convey the emotion of place. When I bite into a sweet and crisp tree-ripe, just picked Okanogan apple, I can literally taste “home”: cold nights, hot days, the cool chill of the shadowy orchard floor, the constant hum of quiet conversation amongst the pickers, the scent of river water. During our family vacation to Washington this past August, we were invited by the owners of Smallwoods Orchards to taste the very first harvest of Washington State organic HoneyCrisp and Fuji apples, two of my favorites. By the time we returned to Anne Arundel County, just a couple of weeks later, these exact same organic apples were already showcased in area groceries like Graul’s and Whole Foods Market. Not the same, but delicious nonetheless.
Apples are, in my opinion, one of the easier fruits to incorporate into your culinary repertoire. They can be simple or gourmet, rustic or elegant, perfect for the lunchbox or a grown-up dinner. Because apples have crunch when raw and a soft svelte texture when cooked, they are excellent in sauces, sautés, slaws and even soups. Obviously, apple recipes are a buck a bushel, as they say. Here are a couple of my favorites.Feel free to share...