Pie

We got our pie at last. I’ll tell you about it, because it’s just plain damn time for a happy outcome. In fact, just because I’m feeling generous and expansive I’m going to tell you the whole story again, even though I’ve told most of it before, because someday I want my children to say of me, even if exasperatedly, that I used to tell this story about the apple tree, and that will necessitate my having told it at least twice. Maybe I’ll tell it slightly differently this time. Maybe not.

Our family apple tree, rooted in a new place.

Our family apple tree, rooted in a new place.

Mom demonstrates the dough nap.

PopPop always got a kick out of the idea of the dough “napping”. Gramma demonstrates this important step.

I grew up with this apple tree, you see. It was a Transparent, and every year when the apples got a yellow blush on their mostly green cheeks and started falling to the ground we would gather them up in the white porcelain bowls we called “basins” or in brown grocery bags and put them in the laundry room, and then Dad would help Mom core and peel them and then Mom would bake some of them into pies and bake the rest into applesauce with cinnamon. A
dish of my Mom’s applesauce, served up in a colored plastic bowl, was a treat like no other on the earth. To this day I do not eat applesauce of any other kind because by comparison to my mom’s it will be bland and watery. The applesauce produced at 1653 106th Avenue Southeast in Bellevue was dense, tart and — in summer when it was just made — warm from the pot. As for the pies, I will not set myself up for failure by attempting to describe the rarefied heights of ecstasy to which I was wafted upon the eating of same. I will say only that I once argued with a man — an apple tree specialist — at a fruit tree expo that I as a fledgling nurseryman took the opportunity of attending, because he dismissed the Transparent in favor of any number of newer cultivars that make for “better pie apples” and he was wrong. There is no better apple for an apple pie than a Transparent. I will say that and also this: my mom makes pie crust the way she was taught by “Creedy”, an old woman she first knew when my parents moved out West from Baltimore in the very late 1950s. It is a way that must be learned at the elbow of someone who has mastered it and it makes the most mouth-watering pie crust that ever was.

The tree was destroyed in the fall of 2006 when my parents suddenly, as if they were packing up to stake a claim in the goldfields of the Yukon, sold the house I grew up in and moved out of it. A matter of weeks later the house was bulldozed. I have not returned to the street since that happened, but just before it happened, while it was still legally my parents’ home, I went round there with my Felco #2 pruning shears and cut fifty of the suckers that sprouted from the top limbs every year, and brought them back to Seattle and stuck them in a bucket of rainwater until I could:

  • chop the suckers into eight-inch sections with at least four nodes each
  • wrap them half-a-dozen at a time into bundles in moist paper towels
  • seal the bundles up in baggies
  • put the baggies in the refrigerator

These were instructions I had been given by a fruit-tree growing friend (a friend being someone who does not try to talk you out of your apple love), who told me October was the wrongest time of year to cut scions from fruit trees and try to graft them onto new rootstock, but said if I was careful and lucky I might just be able to keep the scions viable until late winter.

I was careful and hoped I would be lucky. I rewrapped the bundles in new paper towels every six weeks through the winter, and in late February or early March I took some of them to the Fruit Tree Society’s convention in Ballard, where they had volunteers performing grafts on rootstock they had for sale there. I came home with eight newborn Transparent trees with their bare roots wrapped in plastic. I potted those in ten gallon pots with good soil and fertilizer and lined them up in the driveway where they’d get sun and rain, and proceeded to watch them all sprout a single leaf and die.

Her fingers fairly fly.

Her fingers fairly fly.

Mom taught two new generations of pie-makers that day.

Mom taught two new generations of piemakers that day.

All but one. One of the trees lived through the summer, having grown almost not at all. We moved that fall and I brought it with me and nursed it through another winter, remembering to bring it into the garage when the winds came down from Canada and the cold went deep for several nights in a row. Finally I planted it in our backyard up among the rhodies, where children playing wouldn’t step on it. It produced one tiny apple the next summer, and two the summer after that, but they didn’t grow to full size. Mara and her friend Gwyneth “accidentally” picked the two little apples the second year, but I doubt they would have grown much more anyway. The tree needed more sun than it was getting, I was advised by another knowledgeable friend. When cold came I moved it to a different spot, and it has slowly flourished there. I only got two or three tiny applets the next year and the squirrels got those, as they did the five I got the year after that. But this year 22 of the apple blossoms closed into little lumps and grew into apples, and I covered the tree with a net to keep the birds and squirrels off, and only six of the fruits fell off prematurely, so I ended up with 16 apples by summer’s end. They were not as large as the ones I knew in my youth, but they were the product of the same tree, genetically. The long journey was over.

I called my mom and asked her how many apples it would take to make a pie, and she said about eight apples “the size of tennis balls”.

These were not that big.

“What about sixteen apples a little bigger than ping pong balls?” I negotiated.

She said bring what I had, we’d make it work. So we kept the apples in the refrigerator for two weeks — Mom’s schedule was as busy as ours and it took that long to meet up — and then took them to her house in Issaquah (Dad died in 2011) for an historic baking.

I peeled, Angela sliced, and Mom prepared the kitchen for the event. Mom then showed me how to make the crust, including letting the dough “rest”, the part about which my dad, we always note aloud, used to say “the dough has to take a nap”.

This aroma unleashed will call me out of any corner of earth with a fork in my hand.

This aroma unleashed will call me out of any corner of earth with a fork in my hand.

She's eaten half of it already, but you can still get the idea.

She’s eaten half of it already, but you can still get the idea.

Miraculously, we had enough sliced apples for two full-sized pies, one that Mom made with me watching and one that I made with Mom watching, and even a little one that Mom (Gramma) helped Millie make. With extra dough, she showed Mara how to make what we always just referred to as a pie crust, a simple baked crust sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, for a snack. Everything came out of the oven looking and smelling and tasting just the way it should. Sometimes we get lucky, and love makes up the rest.

So this odd migration of our family apple tree is finally at an end, or at least an oasis. If we move from our current home someday, the tree is coming with us, one way or another.

4 Responses to “Pie”


  1. 1 Rachael Contorer November 29, 2013 at 14:58

    Great story, Matt! Feel free to tell it again!

    I have been delighted by your return to periodic posting! I’m sorry about your sister’s passing. Your musing on the nature of sibling relationships is so insightful! Those whom we shared bedrooms and bathrooms and genetic material with are sometimes more foreign to us than actual foreigners, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that we should be more like one another, and thick as thieves. And then they depart . . . I, too, have lost a sibling, and am now several years older than he ever lived to be. It’s an odd feeling.

    I really enjoy your writing. Please keep at it! You have a way of elevating the everyday with your insights–sometimes simply by observing the things most of us glance at without any substantive comprehension.

    Best wishes to you and yours,
    Rachael

  2. 2 Matt November 29, 2013 at 21:47

    Hi Rachael,
    Glad to see your name here again, and thank you for such a kind assessment of my…uh…work here. I will keep at it as I’m able. I have unfinished posts and unstarted ideas, and life keeps happening, despite my worst fears. Sorry to hear about your brother. Best to you, too.

  3. 3 Jana February 8, 2014 at 09:07

    Such a sweet story. I love your dedication to these apples. The years of effort most definitely paid off.

    • 4 Matt February 9, 2014 at 17:37

      Thanks Jana. I know you share the family history madness in a big way. I’ve been feeling like I should do another migration of the genetic material, because this tree is just really not vigorous. Went to a meeting of the tree fruit people yesterday and had a heart to heart with someone there who told me that in her opinion the M27 rootstock, which is what I grafted to, is pretty poor stuff, and she’s not surprised that it hasn’t flourished much in seven years. She’s going to hook me up with some Geneva 30 or Emla 7 or M111, any of which should do better. Grafting time is next month, so it’s timely. Maybe I can finally get the family apple wood into a permanent new home. More to follow, for sure.


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