October 5, 2015

The Apple Barrel

Right now I’m sitting on the couch in front of my fireplace. It is the first fire of the season in the Lowman household. I enjoy fires in the fireplace. The smell of the burning wood, the warmth of the fire, and crackle and popping sounds that ring out are all nostalgic to me.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for my family to get a call from Aunt Kay and Uncle Claude stating that there was a fire going in the fireplace. We would pile in the car for the 10 minute drive and hang out for the evening. Those evenings were so enjoyable. We would laugh with one another, cook hot dogs over the fire, roast marshmallows. Those were the days…days when life seemed much more simple and slow.

With the fire tonight, I am having a cup of hot cider, if you want to call it that. The cider is not that good. I have never really found a cider that matches up the cider I helped make when I was in high school. My first real job was at Varian Orchards in East Canton, Ohio. I started right at the beginning of my junior year of high school. It was a cool job. That fall I picked apples every day after school till it got dark–all the way to the top of a wooden 16’ ladder leaned up against the red delicious apple trees. It is a wonder I didn’t die….

At Varians, Saturday was cider day. We would make a couple hundred gallons or more. The process was this. Put apples into the hopper. A machine chopped and pummeled them into bits. Down below the chopper, workers would smooth the apple pummel into wool blankets that were placed on slats. After each blanket was filled, a new slat was placed on top and the process was repeated until there was a stack high enough to barely fit under the hydraulic press, which is where the magic happened.

In this whole process, my job was simple–put apples into the hopper at the top and empty the pummel rags after each pressing. Mr. Varian was very particular about the apples going into the hopper. We started with 3 crates of one type of apple, 3 of the next type, and then 3 of another type–all of which I don’t remember. We would continue that cycle till the stainless steel tank was 3/4 of the way full. At that point, Mr. Varian would taste it. From there the recipe would be altered to achieve the exact same desired taste.

Week after week after week, it was the same process. The result was amazing apple cider that always had the same taste. Not too much of one apple or too much of another. An added bonus when one of the other workers would bring donuts. Fresh, incredible cider and donuts? Yes, please?!

The only downfall of the whole process was emptying the pummel rags. I had to shake them onto a cart that was half rotten because its only purpose was to hold the leftovers from the apple cider making process. As the temps got colder, the deck of the cart got more slippery. The worst of all was the fact that all the apple juice would turn my hands brown for a day or two (picture how an apple browns when left to the open air. Now apply that to hands).

I learned a lot in my 9 or 10 months of work at Varians. I learned there there were many varieties of apples. I learned that raking acorns and leaves from 4 giant oak trees was a horrible experience. I learned how to prune fruit trees in the dead of winter. I got to see the beauty of 1000s of apple trees in full bloom.

Most of all, I learned about hard work and doing what you were told. I had my first experience with not fully doing my job–wire brushing the cider slats. The next time I saw Mr. Varian was not an enjoyable experience. It was the first time someone other than family leaned into me verbally. Man, he was angry! Luckily, my inability to follow directions and finish a job didn’t result in the place being shut down.

Thank you, Mr. Varian, for helping me begin to learn what hard work was, what it should be.