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My Wild Apple Hunt

In Brief:

After winning a raffle to go heirloom apple picking with one of the nation’s leading cider makers, I also got the chance to document our trip. What did I find? Ugly, beautiful apples.

We drove alongside the old fence and down the grassy path to the abandoned orchard.

In the front seat of his Toyota, which he’d retrofitted into an heirloom apple collection machine, Andy Brennan pulls an apple from his dashboard. Apples are everywhere in the car. On the floor of the truck, on the truck bed. Next to me on the front seat, next to my foot.

“So tell me about apples?” I ask.

He takes a bite into one, excavates the small seed, resting it on his pant leg.

“It’s a long story,” he says, beginning with the seed itself. The first seeds came over from the Mayflower, when the early settlers brought seeds of various fruits with them. Apple trees were planted. The fruit fell from the trees. Farmers collected it.

While smaller animals easily moved fruit like berries, apples were too heavy. Humans had to move those, he said, driving us all down the path and to the fringe of the forest.

We had started the trip earlier that morning.

We boarded the True.Ink van on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The crowd was a mix: a medical school student; a Broadway set designer; me and my editor friends at Food52; behind me was a tech coder and his girlfriend. They wore wigs and couldn’t stop kissing each other.

We had all come here to see Andy Brennan, of Aaron Burr Cidery, who is considered one of the premier cider makers in the country, partly because each bottle of hard juice he makes is created from apples that he forages by hand. He’s not interested in apples. He’s obsessed with them.

“It’s important to think of these apple trees like you would a person,” he said.

We park and he gets out and points. The apples hang like grapes on vines, hidden behind the leaves. They are not pretty. They are not round. They’re all ugly and imperfect—but that’s nature.

“The apple tree is feral,” Andy said, and has continued to escape cultivation over time.

Early in American history, Westerners feared this land. The apple tree did an awesome job of assimilating, he went on. It liked being in the cool Northeast climate because of its Asian origin, and it started to mature. Humans witnessed this and adulated the apple, like a religious figure that revealed how to reflect, adapt and be malleable. It has survived the industrial period, human perversions. It has a rhythm all its own.

To hunt the apples, Brennan has created his own tools.

He has long spears with forkish, prong-like fingers to wrest the apples off high branches. Behind us, nature’s picturesque backdrop of warm amber and marigold blends with hunter green. As an unseasonably early snowfall begins, we pick up buckets, the tools, lay down the tarp at the first tree’s base and start the hunt.

The foraging begins at the southern fringe of the forest. The goal is to shake the apples free and get the tree’s branches as naked as possible. A member of the group pokes and prods at the highest branch while I collect the fallen fruit. To keep the blood circulating, I sort quickly, feeling the cool, blemished apples in my palms. I start tossing almost every piece of fruit that appears unusable back into the brush. But Brennan tells me the imperfections is what he’s after.

“These marks have probiotics,” he says, pointing at the apples’ skin. “They are natural yeasts. That’s what I’m looking for.”

The rest of the group had disappeared into the thicket.

The boyfriend and girlfriend in wigs had climbed a tree and were hanging from the branches, shaking hundreds of apples down into the tarps.

“You’ve heard of that Thoreau saying, be the wild apple tree?” Brennan asked me.

I hadn’t. I didn’t know Thoreau wrote an essay about wild apples, nor had I given apples in general any thought. When I looked at apples, they all looked the same—arranged and perfectly in order. Here, the wild apples have their own tune.

The snow falls again and my fingers are getting cold and wet and grimy. I hear from the others about a campfire.

We follow the path, deeper into the forest. I smell fire. I can see the flame. The True flag is hanging from a branch.

Nearby, alongside a small and elevated hut, Craig Cavallo, one of True’s food editors, and Geoffrey Gray, the magazine’s founder, have cooked up a fire. On top is a grate, where there’s a pot of chili, cornbread, and apple cake from Food52. Along with his hard cider, Brennan has also brought up jugs of his scrumpy, cider made from the dregs of his barrels.

It’s all a bit too perfect for nature. Even the stream in front of us and the sunset hitting it just so. There’s talk of a swim. The couple in the wigs have come down from their tree. Wild apples, indeed, are everywhere.