The Art of Making Cider: Sometimes the Learning Stays Home

by DAVID SOBEL

Ode to Autumn

David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education.

Five apple trees create a protected bower in our back yard. Six if you count the scraggly one that’s never borne any fruit but I can’t quite cut down. My son Eli has always referred to it as the front yard, and I’ve often corrected him. “The front yard is the side that faces the road. The back yard is where the apple trees and the garden are.”

But as he persisted, I came to see the underlying truth. Nothing much ever happened on the road side of the house. No games, no craft, no family time, just walking out to get the mail and the newspaper. Conversely, life happened under the apple trees. We played kickball and soccer, we napped in the hammock, we jumped in piles of leaves, Eli learned to use a chainsaw cutting down ash and maple just on the other side of the western stone wall. Wendy revived the perennial flower beds here. Jeff our rambunctious neighbor, launched his clandestine nighttime firework attacks out there. And it’s where we always made cider. If front connotes significance, like in “front and center” and back connotes neglected, like in “put it out back,” then indeed the yard with the apple trees was more front than back.

The apple trees bore abundantly. Heaps, bounties and bushels of apples. Not beautiful apples, all scabby and deformed, but juicy apples. One in a hundred was plump, unscathed, suitable for display and snacking on complemented with a sharp chunk of cheddar. The rest littered the ground, squished between your toes, attracted deer and more problematically yellow jackets, made lawn mowing messy. When Eli’s friends were over, I’d recruit them to clear the back yard prior to cutting the grass by encouraging them to use the apples for target practice. “See the big oak on the other side of the wall? Try to hit it 100 times with apples. Get rid of as many as you can.”

But the best thing to do with all those apples was to make cider. Between the growing up ages of about five and twelve, making cider dominated our family fall weekends. We’d sort out the mushy, ant-filled apples from the deformed but juicy ones. The rejects went into the woods to feed the deer, the good ones filled weathered bushel boxes from an orchard in Cornwall, Vermont. We set up on the flagstone patio outside the old kitchen and next to the woodpile. Our mill was a simple, rock maple construction, with a grinder and a press. The bushel baskets sat on the card table next to the press. One of the kids stood on a porch chair and loaded the apples into the grinder, I’d turn the grinder handle, while my wife Wendy collected and cleaned out the plastic quart soda bottles, two quart milk containers, old gallon cider jugs, pint Ball jars. Then once the bushel box was emptied, we’d fold over the mash bag, put the wooden top on the mash and then twist the grinder handle to put pressure on the mash. Within seconds, the tawny, fawn colored liquid started gushing from the bottom of the mash. We’d hold a cup underneath the collection hole and sip the nectar of autumn. Crisply fresh, satiny sweet, tangily tart. No store bought cider could ever hold a candle to our homemade, pressed-by-innocent-virgins, negligently organic, frontyard cider.

Friends and bees buzzed around the press. The kids invited other kids over to help make cider. Some collected apples, some climbed the trees to shake down more apples, some bottled, some jumped on the trampoline, some lounged on quilts in the low-angled sun. Everyone sipped and raved about the cider. I once took a sip that had an unusual zing to it and thought, “Wow, I wonder what made this cider so spicy?” and then realized I’d taken a sip laced with a bee and had been stung on the tongue!

Cider-making turned into impromptu early Sunday evening suppers. Everyone was sent home with a bottle or two. The kids set up roadside stands in front of the house, down by the church, then in the village at the general store to sell cider and pints of blueberries. And it was always a treat after a brisk afternoon of cross-country skiing through hemlock woods, past beaver swamps up to the meadowy crest of Spaulding Hill to come home to hot-mulled cider. I could taste the glint of autumn, and of happy childhoods, as it warmed my insides.

This Too Shall Pass

About number of years ago divorce happened, then 9/11, followed by a season of hardly any apples. Back luck comes in threes. (Last year, after a spotless driving record for decades, I got two speeding tickets, and a stop sign violation all in a three month span, so it must be true.) Actually, I’m not sure if the apples actually stopped in 2001 or whether it was the year before. I’d had the trees pruned a couple of times a couple of years apart, which is supposed to increase production the following year. That hadn’t worked. We had a series of very rainy, cold Mays when the blossoms were washed from the trees prematurely. And I’d noticed a dearth of bees over the past few years. Perhaps the mite that was decimating the bee population was having an impact on my apples. Where have all the apples gone, we wondered mopily?

One year we collected apples at Craig and Sarah’s house. Another year I bought drops from the Norway Hill Orchard in Hancock. But it just wasn’t the same as making your own cider from your own apples. At first the kids were sad. “I miss making cider. It was always one of my favorite parts of the fall,” my daughter bemoaned during her sophomore year in high school. But “painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.”. Tara left for Bennington College. Eli, though still living mostly with me, left for cross-country meets and playing music with his friends on weekends. Cider-making became another faded, fond memory, like coming back to a happy home of mellow Brazilian jazz, curried chicken soup, math homework and wood stove warmth on a dreary November evening.

Reapplication

Which is why I was so tickled, on a Thursday evening early in September when Tara called home. “Daddy, I have a favor to ask. There are apple trees all over the campus and nobody does anything with them. Apples just sit on the ground, rot, attract bees, and then lots of people get stung. And we really want to get students and the food service excited about using more local food and having a composting system. Can you believe that there’s no composting on our campus? So, my friends and I want to know if you can bring the cider press over some weekend so we can make cider to do something with all these apples. In the process, we’ll talk to all the people who come by about local food and composting.”

I quietly contained my enthusiasm. Looking at my calendar, I knew it was either that weekend, or not till mid October, and by then most of the apples would be beyond redemption. I responded, “If you can pull things together on your end, I can do it this Saturday. You’ll need to collect apples, find and wash containers to put the cider in, and get enough friends together so I don’t have to do all the work.” I wasn’t quite sure if it would all come together, but I loved that it was her idea, her investment in bringing a family tradition to her new place and new friends.

I wound across the southern Green Mountains, past neglected Hogback Mountain- — another lost ski area, past the ridgetop wind turbines in Searsburg, through hardscrabble Woodford and down to Bennington College, one of most heartbreakingly lovely campuses in the country. After suffering through a decade of deferred maintenance, Bennington is perking up again, with a new student center about to open, and a scintillating and rambunctious art and intellectual scene still intact. As we rolled past the security gate, I saw a bevy of girls collecting apples out in front of the barn. Tara wasn’t among them, but I knew they were her recruits. I had hope.

We set up the press under a sugar maple on the lawn that stretches down to The End of the World, a stunningview stretching out towards Mt. Anthony and the Taconics. The maple leaves were tipped with fingernail polish, the apples glimmered, students lounged around practicing script lines and reading Nietzsche. At first it was just me and the press, but Tara soon returned from a rehearsal, the apples showed up — in shopping bags, cardboard boxes, and raggedy satchels. Empty gourmet water, Sobe and Mondavi bottles soon littered the grass. We were ready to grind and roll. The Bennington women lived up to their reputations. There was the Physics major dressed all in black, lots of arm strength for grinding and turning. Dara had recently returned from an organic farm in Italy where she spent a lot of time topless. Her under-buttoned loose men’s shirt suggested her European dispositions. She’d stomped grapes, harvested tomatoes and made olive oil. Back to the land cider was right up her alley. The prevailing clothing style was gourmet bag lady. Everyone wore ragtag yet fashionable collections of castoffs, torn jeans, plaids and stripes, garishly pink polka dotted rainboots, tassely scarves. And they were all giddily enthusiastic about making cider. “This is so cool,” gushed Maia, “I never realized it was so easy. And it tastes sooo good.”

Cider-making is magnetic and soon iron filings starting migrated towards us. Post bacs who lived off campus, the slightly weird guy in one of Tara’s classes, faculty members, even one of the Security guards took a turn. And the conversation bounded from local food to why campus gardens had been abandoned to plotting guerilla theater about how to start a new composting site. Once they knew the ropes, I eased into the background and after a couple of pressings, I left them to their own devices while I sought out a sandwich at Powers Market in North Bennington. When I returned they were wrapping things up, washing the press, being unbelievably helpful busy beavers. The whole process couldn’t have been more delightful. And though I wasn’t thrilled with the conversations I heard about rum and cider for the party that night, I was happy to feel like I’d pulled through for Tara and she had pulled through for me.

Sunday

Over pancakes with yogurt and fruit the next morning Eli chided, “You didn’t bring home any cider! Why not? I really miss making cider. (That old refrain) Hey, we should make cider today!” I reminded him that we had a dearth of apples, but suggested that in past years, Jeff’s neglected trees in the overgrown meadow sometimes had apples when our trees didn’t. We wandered down through the goldenrod and waist high grass and sure enough, a tree chock full of an antique green apples. And as we came back into our yard and looked up, we realized our one Cortland tree (the rest are Macs) was similarly laden, though most of the apples were way up in the outermost branches. We figured there were at least a couple of bushels. “Let’s do this!’ he growls with mock sports intensity and he soon has commitments from his girlfriend Kate and his best friend Peter to come help.

Eli and Kate head down into the meadow to shake apples out of Jeff’s tree. Whoops, laughter and thumps ring up from them and it warms my heart to know he’s bringing Kate into our old family tradition. Meanwhile, Peter and I strategize about the Cortland. We use my really long extension ladders to get him up into the high branches. He climbs and drops them on the ground. I scamper around and collect them. I’m thrilled it’s him and not me up the ladder, stretching perilously to get just a few more. And we develop a nice collaborative rhythm, me pointing out apples he can’t see, him avoiding dropping apples on my head. I’ve known Peter since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. Now he’s an accomplished ski racer, just having gotten back from training in Chile at the end of August. We provided a home away from home for him when his parents were getting divorced; his mom and dad did the same for Eli when the roles were reversed. It feels good to reconnect this way.

Kate and Eli show back up. All together we’ve got almost three bushels — more than I expected. We set to and I have to temper Peter and Eli’s muscularity. This summer Eli did landscape installation, muscling lots of big rock around with heavy equipment and upper body strength. Peter was a mason’s assistant. They’re both lean and buff and could easily exert too much strength and break the press. In fact, at one point, the mash cover is punctured by the press rod, but the boys ingeniously fix it with a Euro coin that fits perfectly into the punctured hole. They gradually take over, owning the process, and I do some other chores. Turns out the Cortland cider is wonderfully sweet, the wild green apple cider a bit too tart, so they concoct a mixture that’s just right. Once we clean the press, Kate heads home with a gallon, Peter stays for dinner. Kate’s mom calls later and thanks us for “the best cider I’ve ever tasted.” I sleep well that night.

What’s the moral of this story? Cider-making was at the center of the family mythos I had constructed when the kids were growing up. I swore that the kids would leave from the same house to go to college that they were born in, since they were both born at home. I wanted them to love this place, north of Monadnock, ten minutes to any of six great swim spots, our own little orchard. I wanted this cider to flow in their blood, this dirt transformed into tomatoes, cucumbers and basil to become their sinew, this moonlight in their stories. And then it all fell apart, so far apart. Or so I thought.

The spontaneous cider-making enthusiasm from both Tara and Eli felt redemptive to me. Here they were expressing their local joy, the affirmation of a family tradition as part of who they were, what was important to them. Neither day had been my idea. If I’d tried to make it happen — ”Hey, let’s make cider this weekend,” — I might have gotten a cold shoulder. Instead, it genuinely came out of their own love of place, and, their love for me. There was something about the back-to-old-times aspect of it that was charming. And something about the way they swept their friends up into it with a hearty enthusiasm that warmed my heart. Sometimes, you can go home again.

David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education. This is a version of an article that was originally written as the introduction to A National Action Plan for Educating for Sustainability published by the United States Green Building Council and Houghton Mifflin. This Action Plan includes recommendations for enhancing formal education in the U.S. so that all students graduate educated for a sustainable future by 2040.

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