Today we mark Father’s Day with another essay by William Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves. To read Alexander’s previous essay, click here, and don’t miss our Father’s Day gift guide if you’re still hunting down that perfect gift.
An Essay by William Alexander
Like many sons, I think of my late father often this time of year. But not so much because it’s Father’s Day; rather because this is the season that he annually dragged us kids into his backyard orchard to bag the apples. While they were still on the tree.
Perhaps I should explain. When I was growing up, my dad had three apple trees. He tended these trees, the dominant feature — actually the only feature — of our small backyard with the kind of care most fathers reserve for their children or golf clubs. Dad was passionate about his apples, and somehow had come across a technique of growing perfect, blemish-free apples without the regular application of pesticides. He accomplished this by inspecting his young apples daily, watching for the day when they reached “the size of walnuts.” Then, on the first weekend after this momentous day, usually in mid-June, he’d summon the entire family out into the yard, where he awaited with ladders, scissors, staplers, and a roll of clear plastic tubing, about four inches in diameter — not the usual tools of an orchardist, but we knew the drill and performed our jobs without complaint, energized by the anticipation of autumn’s reward: perfect crisp apples, eaten right off the tree, impossibly tall apple pies, and hot apple fritters.
Without needing a word of instruction, we’d fan out among the trees, my dad taking a stepladder to reach the upper branches, my little brother in charge of the lowest branches, the rest of us in the middle. At each tiny apple we cut a four-inch length of tubing, slipped it over the apple, and secured it by stapling it closed at the stem.
As the apples grew in their wrappers, the bags stretched with them, protecting the fruit from public enemy number one: the maggot fly, which harmlessly deposited its otherwise destructive eggs on the plastic. Free of maggots, Dad’s pre-packaged fruit flourished, and all was well. For a while.
One year, when Dad was unable to get tubing from his usual supplier, he made do with some discarded small plastic bags, some of which had a company name printed on them. At harvest that year, in one of those great serendipitous moments in the annals of invention, he discovered that the label, by blocking the light and preventing the apple under it from turning red, had been clearly transferred to the apple. I was somewhat disconcerted at having to eat an apple tattooed with “Brooklyn Ironworks,” but — bingo! — a light clicked on in Dad’s brain, and he realized he had hit on something big. Really big.
The next spring, a new tool was added to the bagging arsenal: a heavy black permanent marker. Dad carefully printed the names of everyone in the family — kids, aunts, uncles, cousins, even close friends — and a few months later he proudly distributed personalized apples—too special, of course to eat. (I wouldn’t be surprised if an odd one still survives in the back of someone’s freezer along with a piece of wedding cake.) It was a sure sign of solid social standing with Dad if you received a customized apple, the local community’s version of being invited to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. But why stop there? Once my father ran out of names he moved on to messages like “Happy Birthday” and “Merry Christmas,” even “Get Well Soon” (you never know), to the growing alarm of his teenagers.
Dad delighted in his tattooed apples, but he never thought of it in commercial terms. If he had, you might today be buying apples imprinted with “Dole” or, even better, the PLU code, eliminating that horrible sticker you have to peel off of each piece of fruit. But my father was a romantic, not an entrepreneur.
This particular apple having not fallen far from the tree, I have my own apple trees now. But, sadly, because I live deep in apple country, where I have to contend with a host of pests and fungi, bagging is ineffective. I have to spray my trees. However, I do make a point of bagging one apple each June, with just a single word written on it. Of course, it says, “DAD.”
William Alexander lives and bakes in New York’s Hudson Valley. He is the author of The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves. Find him online at www.williamalexander.com.