Thursday, October 11, 2012

What do Apples and Bananas Have in Common? Family.

   All of a sudden, it happened last week - I woke up in my bedroom, windows open, and felt the chill. Cardinals chirping in the spruce outside, wind rustling newly crisped leaves that seem to caramelize on the trees, and the sun barely stretching it's rays, yawning with me as we drank coffee together. Yes, I realized it - fall had finally arrived.
   Autumn is my favorite of seasons for a number of reasons, including a myriad of birthdays and anniversaries, pumpkins, and leaf piles begging to be leapt into. And typically, I commemorate the first days around my daughter's birthday, two weeks before Halloween (joy!). Now I have a new start date, and it's made me feel a bit like that Christmas-in-July store display, the preemptive decor stealthily invading the back shelves of Target when we're JUST getting Back to School shopping done...you understand what I mean...
   I bumped it back.
I began fall earlier, and probably will from now on, thanks to the fine folks of Hickman County, Tennessee, and a wee get-together they host on the first Saturday of October for the last three years called the National Banana Pudding Festival. It's an entire day of puddin' eatin', bouncy houses, and country/folk music, and I love every minute of it. This year, as a past grand prize winner, I was invited back to judge the competition...wow, what a difficult task! I mean, isn't it simply AWFUL that I HAD to eat ten banana puddings before lunchtime?!? Simply torturous...
  ...regardless, I plowed forth, and the emerging winner presented a delicious rendition called Foster's Banana Pudding, laced with Appleton rum and banana liqueur...um, yum.
   I had never considered banana pudding a "holiday" dessert, but then, the people of Tennessee probaby never considered that a damn Yankee might win their competiton either (but I did! See Archives of 2010 blogs). Then the stories unfurled whilst cooking was going on....someone's grandfather ritually presented a pudding at the Thanksgiving table. Another fed it to her grandchildren around the fireplace on Christmas. One perched on the refrigerator as a child, watching awestruck as their family's cook browned a perfect meringue.The stories were as varied and remarkable as the recipes, and it dawned on me that this seemingly ordinary, down-home dessert casserole was the stuff of holiday memories, of years of tradition passed hand to spoon, mouth to ear, grandparent to grandchild. It wasn't about the food, but about the connections developed over a humble  pudding studded with Nilla wafers and sweet fruit, and all it represented - family, warmth, home, and love.

   Having grown up in the Northeast, bananas were decidedly not on our holiday radar, but our family has it's own banana puddings. In my home, with my husband and daughter, it's apple pie that shuffles in the season for me. We agreed early on that we needed to instill traditions of our own creation in Colette, beyond what we already have with extended family. And so every year, we trek out to Princeton and visit Terhune Orchards, a family-run apple farm that also has a small collection of farm animals, aging Golden retrievers lazing about the porch, apple cider donuts, and a fine selection of pumpkins. Every year, we grab way too many apples, mostly the ones I use for pie - Golden Delicious and Granny Smiths, but I usually sneak in Winesaps for apple butter as well. Every year, we stand Colette against the side of the sheep barn and measure her against the 'How Tall am I Now?" painted cornstalk, and marvel to one another how quickly our apple-driven infant has sprouted into a mouthy applesauce-obsessed preschooler. Every year, we hunt out the biggest, most personable pumpkins in the patch that we can carry, to carve into jack o'lanterns for Halloweeen. We gorge on unfiltered cider in the car on our way into town, noses red and runny from the brisk autumn air, and ooh and aaah at the old Victorian homes downtown. We prowl the university's campus population, half-pretending that we're students looking for a frat party (although it's diffiult toting a kid around - we look more like professors now). We cap our day by visiting Triumph Brewery, downing some microbrew pints, and feasting on fish and chips golden from the fryer.

 And after all of THAT, we go home and craft the best apple pie known to man or beast.
 
What, you think I'm giving away my secret recipe?? You're nuts! I will NOT.
 
   What I will divulge is that when the scent of apples and cinnamon waft into the living room, we are all floating on holiday air. The windows and doors are flung open, tea is made with cinnamon stick straws, and the sun dances merrily on the tines of the rake, as Sean tidies the lawn for the trick-or-treaters, while Colette and Abby impede his progress by smashing through leafpiles. Fall is in the air, Thanksgiving is around the corner, and the pot of applesauce on the stove begs for Mason jars and warm oatmeal. I heat my mug of cider, hit it with a shot of Meyer's, and sit on the patio, curled into my fleecy jacket, observing the blessings I have around me. And I marvel how a humble fruit, tenderly crafted into a humble dessert, can tie bonds beyond years, beyond words.
   I will pass this recipe to my daughter one day, and she to her offspring, and so on, and so forth, until apples exist only in natural history museums. What will live on, though, is the memories of our trips to the farm, snacking on pie dough, and pictures of smaller, more modest times, when children were measured by cornstalks and we ate apples off the tree, thick as thieves.
 
This is tradition. This is home.
 
 

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