Last fall, we drove up to Apple Hill. Nestled in the Sierra foothills of El Dorado County, Apple Hill was born of necessity. The rich soil around the tiny community of Camino was a major producer of California pears. Some sixteen or so orchards flourished in the area around the turn of the century. But by the early 1960s the pear farmers were struggling – their crops depleting and toiling a living from the soil was nearly impossible.
It was then that the farmers began growing apples, and formed the Apple Hill Growers Association as a way to support one another. In 1964, a weekend festival was held to celebrate the harvest and drawn tourists up from the cities. Apple Hill expected about 4,000 people to visit the small farms that first year. An estimated 10,000 visitors showed up. Today, Apple Hill is a major tourist attraction, with over 50 growers, Christmas Tree Farms and wineries in the area. It’s a beautiful drive from the central valley, especially if you ditch Highway 50 and meander along back roads through the Mother Load instead. For us, the back roads are the only “direct” path available. Reaching the farms of Apple Hill takes nearly two hours of twists and turns. In addition to the many apples, baked goods and eateries, there are local artists, stocked trout ponds and picturesque picnic areas. It’s a day of old-fashioned family fun, with a carnival like atmosphere, if you don’t mind the long lines of traffic on the tiny two-lane roads and the crowds everywhere. Although a big tourist draw, the growers didn’t pave over the orchards in favor of parking lots. Just be careful of the roosting birds late in the day. If you insist upon parking on asphalt, you can always park in Placerville and take a shuttle up to the hill. However, most visitors find parking in the orchards part of the fun. Hubby, Kiddo and I like to get an early start to beat the masses, and we always make it a point to have a fresh Apple Fritter with a cup of warm cider for breakfast.
I will admit, our annual trek up the hill might not be a regular thing anymore. While we still managed to make the best of things, the crowds last year were insane. I can remember when a day at Apple Hill was relaxing. Now you fight for everything – a place to park, a table for lunch, it’s a day of pushing and shoving. Not much fun. We really enjoy the smaller festivals and fairs. Maybe we can find something off the beaten path, offering the experience of yesteryear like Grandpa’s Cellar. The name alone sounds inviting. While still a part of Apple Hill, Grandpa’s Cellar on the backside of the hill, away from the insanity.
One of the biggest reasons we drive all that way up to Apple His is for the Apple Hill Pies. Once upon a time, these pies were unlike any other. Each pie lovingly made by hand, with flaky crusts, and perfect slices of fresh apples. Sadly, that’s not the case anymore. Many of the bigger bakery shops have modernized to meet the demands of the hungry masses, so crusts aren’t necessarily made fresh from scratch. Some of the filling isn’t even freshly harvested apples from the hill. Really? If I wanted a factory-produced pie, I’d get one from the frozen section of my grocery store. Too much commercialism can really sour a good thing. Which brings me to today’s rant . . .
Hubby and I rose early this morning and headed off to the market with our shopping list in hand. I love to cook. Years gone by, doing the weekly marketing was a source of inspiration. Come across a nice roast, and my mind began to swirl with ideas. Now when I walk through the meat section, most of what I see isn’t very inspiring – and it’s no wonder people don’t know how to cook these days. The pork roasts are all uniformed in size, in nice little one pound packages sealed in their own marinades. Steaks are already rubbed with seasoning. And let’s talk instant sides. There are buckets of mashed potatoes ready at the deli counter. Macaroni salads, potato salads, trays of deviled eggs and pre-made sandwiches. Sandwiches? People don’t even make their own sandwiches! And don’t even get me started on the availability of “home-made” dinners in the frozen food ales. Okay, I get it – convenience in this day of working families, with long hours and busy schedules is important and does influence our meal time. I’ll admit it, sometimes the convenience of a commercially prepared supper is a necessity on a hectic weeknight. However; what truly frustrates me is that “from scratch” ingredients are becoming more and more scarce. To make a simple meal from scratch sometimes requires stops at two or three markets. When you want to spend a few hours joyfully creating in the kitchen, you don’t always have the time (or desire) to drive all over town for ingredients that aren’t canned, frozen or blended. Is that so much to ask? Once upon a time there were butcher shops that didn’t force you to buy an entire side of beef to get a good cut of meat. Once upon a time, you could stop by your local bakery early in the morning for some fresh-baked goods. And the produce section smelled of fresh fruits. You shopped seasonally and planned accordingly. Now we have gluten-free, fat-free, homogenized byproducts of what use to be real food. Today you can get a pot roast complete with all the vegetables on a Styrofoam tray all neatly wrapped in plastic shrink-wrap. Just unwrap and toss it into a pot. In the mood for kabobos? You’ll find them already skewered with vegetables. All you need do is turn on a gas grill and there you go. Cookie dough is sold in the dairy section – just slice a bake. (I can’t help but wonder about all the fun family bonding moments that are forever lost in trade-off. Sure, slice a bake is great when you are in the mood for warm cookies without all the mess, but as a child the mess was half the fun!)
The other night on Public Television, they aired a program designed to teach people (adults – this wasn’t a kid’s show) how to plan a meal and read a recipe. Really? Read a recipe! I once overheard a co-worker apologizing to her college-student daughter because she had to work late and hadn’t made dinner yet. Let me tell you, I could be gone for days, and Kiddo wouldn’t go hungry in a kitchen stocked with “real” food just waiting to be cooked. Kiddo’s been in the kitchen whipping up wonderful meal since he first learned how to drag a kitchen stool up to the counter. It’s not enough to buy real ingredients, we need to teach our children what to do with them. And that’s time well spent together. Some of my fondest memories are moments in the kitchen with Dad. My sisters and I are all accomplished cooks. As adults, we enjoy spending time together in the kitchen. While we live in different cities, whenever possible we gather in the kitchen to cook, to bond, to remember and to form new memories.
I’m here to tell you, I’m taking back our Sunday suppers, starting with a nice Apple Stuffed Roast Chicken, creamy mashed potatoes, buttery-nutty carrots and a nice Dutch Apple Pie. With a menu like that, I just might break out the good china and pretty linens, and really do Sunday up right. Who’s with me?