Apples, more specifically apple pies, symbolize early autumn to me. They also remind me of the late John Denver. Here’s why:
About a week before I entered 8th grade my family moved from Wisconsin to a new home in northern Illinois, just in time for school to start. The brick fronted ranch house was a classic fixer-upper (Chip and Joanna Gaines have nothing on my folks; we’d moved into a couple wrecks that my parents brought back to life). My folks picked the place because of its gorgeous one-acre yard, which happened to have a large apple orchard in the back.
Just after we moved in, the apples were ripe. They were EVERYWHERE. My mom was a great cook and baker but she had her hands full, unpacking boxes and getting the house settled, etc. My dad was busy with his job and the house, too. My oldest brother Rich was off at college and my next older brother Tim was busy doing high school stuff.
But I was wide open.
My dad handed a challenge to me. I’d been hinting how much I’d like a copy of Back Home Again, the new John Denver album. So Dad offered to fork out the $7 for the album if I picked all the apples and made pies or cakes or applesauce or whatever so the apples didn’t go to waste, a crime in my father’s book.
Pies seemed to me the most interesting culinary endeavor but I didn’t have a clue how to make one. So Mom helped me with Pie #1 and then handed me her Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and said, “Have at it.”
I made a pie every day after school for weeks – there was always one on the counter top ready to slice for dessert. Dad took several to work. Mom served pie if anyone that resembled company visited. Pretty soon our upright freezer was full of unbaked pies in plastic bags.
Despite all the slicing and dicing and pie making, (and I think my mom also made several batches of applesauce to help the cause) I didn’t make a visible dent in the apple supply. They were still EVERYWHERE.
I figured I lost out the challenge. But one evening Dad came home from work carrying the flat, square record album. “You put in enough work to earn it,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it. I was so proud and I was so excited to play the album, which I did over and over and over and over and over.
Today I pulled out that old vinyl album, which is now available digitally on on iTunes. It includes some great songs. Annie’s Song was on there – one of John Denver’s famous classics and a favorite of my husband’s. And Grandma’s Feather Bed, an old-timey sort of song my Uncle Chuck, who knew the songwriter Jim Connor, plays on his guitar and will sing if we coax him at gatherings. But my favorite song, by far, is Matthew. It is a cinematic song that John Denver wrote about his own beloved uncle and a Kansas wheat farm. I loved farm stories even back then.
John Denver was an excellent songwriter who I think deserves more credit than he’s gotten. Until perhaps this year. His song Take Me Home, Country Roads is one the three tunes in the Forever Country medley now in the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. The song was produced to honor this year’s 50th annual Country Music Association awards and is performed by 30 country music stars. The other two songs are Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again and Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. Good company.
But back to my favorite, Matthew. Here’s a video of John Denver performing the song at Farm Aid in 1990, seven years before he died.
Linked from a recording uploaded to YouTube by jasipospisilka. I claim no rights to the content.
I have got to hand it to my dad for that clever idea that taught me a couple of lessons, including the value of working hard to earn something you wanted. And how to make an apple pie. (By the way, Dad later found a place where we could take the apples to be pressed for cider so our freezer was full of that the next year.)
When my family was on vacation in Tennessee a few weeks ago we bought lots of apples at a gorgeous orchard in Cosby, TN. And I found myself making a pie a few nights ago (finishing up at 11:39 to be exact) to send with Dan to work.
See some photos from our visit to Carver’s Family Orchard and Applehouse Restaurant.