I remember sitting on the counter in our kitchen as a little girl watching applesauce ooze out of the little holes of our Victorio strainer’s silver cylinder, sliding down the ramp into a waiting pan while the garbage parts–the seeds, peels, and stems–fell out into a separate bowl. I snuck quick tastes of warm, soursweet apple on my finger when no one was looking, and even sometimes when they were.
Mum removed the pan of fresh sauce and scraped it into Ball mason jars, lining them up to be brought downstairs for canning in the pressure cooker. Over the basement stove, Mum’s friend, Lynette, tended two or three pots of boiling apples. When a pot became soft enough, she’d lug it over to the counter and tip the fruit into the funnel on top of the strainer. Lynette’s daughter, Lexie, and my sister, Leah, and I took turns cranking the machine and pushing the apples into its mouth with the red plastic masher that we called the Microphone because of its shape. Most of the time we used it for lip-synching to the radio, but for applesaucing day, it was part of a bigger process. On that day, we turned hand-picked McIntosh and Idareds into 52 quarts of applesauce, enough to eat one jar a week until we did it all again.
When I was a kid, applesaucing held the same gravity and joy for me as witnessing communion in church. Before we could take part in communion, my siblings and I would participate by eating Queen Wilhelmina Peppermints when the adults ate the bread and by swallowing our saliva when they swallowed the wine. Not unlike sneaking tastes of fresh applesauce, we did it secretly, so that there would be no questions. We feared the elders might somehow notice and condemn us.
Also like communion, my memories of making applesauce center on it as an activity of tradition and community. There was something fantastically comfortable about it all. The objects, tastes, and smells were all familiar. The motions were the same, and the voices were the same. We were two generations of women working together in a warm kitchen to make something our mothers’ mothers had made with the very same tools.
Of all the foods in my life, applesauce is the one I associate most closely with my own labor, and consequently, it is also the most satisfying to eat. I believe food is meant to be labored over. In fact, I believe food is the origin of labor. Society began with hunter-gatherer communities that were organized around the effort of finding food. These days, we work in order to buy food, but to work in order to produce food changes the act of eating.
In his agrarian essay “The Unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry suggests that Americans have come to despise work but that this is not the correct order of things. “Is work something that we have a right to escape? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so,” he writes. “All the ancient wisdom that has come down to us counsels otherwise. It tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom.” With work, good work, eating becomes more than simply putting food into our mouths, more even than tasting and enjoying good food. Work forces us to appreciate the food not only for its taste but also for the effort put into it.
Since I first started making applesauce, I’ve learned to cook, I’ve raised chickens, and I’ve grown vegetables, but no food is so closely linked to work in my memory as applesauce. Perhaps this is somewhat strange. Unlike raising chickens and pulling carrots out of the earth, applesaucing does not require much physical contact with the food itself. In fact, with the exception of picking the apples, not a single step in the process required that we actually touch the fruit.
Honestly, I’m grateful for this. I can’t imagine trying to mash apples to the same smooth consistency using only my fists, and the thought of making a fire large enough to boil three pots of apples without the help of a stove is almost appalling. But even armed with our little machines and our electricity, there was good labor involved. The process of turning the crank and mashing fruit down the funnel of that old strainer very much defined my first understanding of work. I think this defining connection stems from my memory of applesaucing day as an occasion, as tradition but not habit.
These days, I worr y that applesaucing has lost some of its nostalgic significance for me. My mother and Lynette have grown apart over the years, and we no longer make applesauce regularly. But then, ever y so often, with new and different friends, we revive the tradition. We dust off the jars, pull out the Victorio strainer, and put the pots on the stove. Though some aspects of the process have changed, the basic tradition, community, and work of making applesauce transcend the specifics. A nd there is always comfort in the constancy of things that cannot change. The apples are still McIntosh and Idareds, and the communion elements are still sour-sweet.