Apples and women's work
When blessings feel like curses
In 2017, I wrote an essay about apples and labor and exhaustion. I thought a lot about this essay as I wrote my next book, This American Ex Wife. Because this essay is about the labor we can drop and the labor we can’t. It’s an essay about quitting, but also a lesson in continuing on. It’s an essay about when bounty can feel like a curse. And as we near the end of apple picking season, I thought I would republish it here for you. The illustrations are by the incredible artist Rachael Schafer, who made them when the essay was published in The Rumpus. Rachael also designed this newsletter’s logo.
To pick the best apples, I have to stand on the back seat of the four-wheeler and stretch the claw-arm of the apple picker up to the highest branches. The apple picker is a wooden rod, and at the very end is a metal basket edged with tines.
“Reach higher,” my husband’s octogenarian grandmother yells. It’s not gentle encouragement. It’s an order. Grandma Betty doesn’t mess around.
“Don’t drop them, you’ll ruin them.”
The cows begin to edge forward, waiting for me to bump some apples loose. The low in anticipation.
This isn’t how it was for Eve. I catch my balance so I don’t tumble off the four-wheeler. It is October and the switchgrass glows gold in the afternoon sun. The trees drip with apples, pears, plums, and black walnuts. From the four-wheeler, I can see the neighboring farms, thick with seed corn. In Iowa, the land is an open palm, giving and giving. And we all take. There are cows nearby, hovering, waiting for me to bump the tree and tumble apples to the ground. I can smell their rotting hay farts and feel their wet, heavy heat. They are waiting for me to drop more apples. They will eat them and then shit the seeds out somewhere else on the farm.
Once, on an apple picking trip a few years prior, another relative asked Grandma Betty what kind of apples grew on the farm. She scoffed, “The cow crap variety. The cows eat the apples. They crap. That’s the variety.”
For eleven years, my husband and I picked these cow crap apples every fall on his grandparent’s farm in Toledo, Iowa, on a patch of land so rural that even now, it’s impossible to bring electricity out there. When Grandpa Arnie bought the farm, he imagined one day building a home. But Toledo never grew. Power lines never stretched out that far and the civilization that roared by on Highway 30 never looked twice down that dusty road with no name that wound down across the river, into White Oak Ranch. So named because, for a long time, the farm was the home of the tallest white oak in Iowa. That is, until some young upstart oak in Ames grew taller.
Arnie never got his farm house. He and Betty spent thirty years living ten miles away from the farm in a house in the town, just down the street from a juvenile home for young female offenders. The group home was closed in 2014 after an investigation by the Des Moines Register revealed that the girls there were often locked in isolation for months on end and prevented from getting adequate education. These horrors never cast a pale over our holiday visits, which were filled with lefse, naps, and platters of Aunt Susan’s bars. How like the Midwest to hold horror and love so close together and yet keep them so far apart.
Toledo, Iowa is in a part of the state where the land constantly threatens to take back the stores, homes, and parking lots. Thistles push through concrete at the Dollar General, black walnut trees spread their dark branches like eager fingers over the roofs of small ranch-style homes. The creeping shade of the trees covers weedy yards, overgrown bushes, and pots of annuals that greedily stretch out over the steps and into the reprieve of doorways. Nature here is an open palm, but its fingers are always curling inward.
White Oak Ranch feels as though it has never fully been wrested from nature. There are the remnants of an inn and a smokehouse, which were used, Arnie told me, when the road going by the farm was used by wagons. Then the Lincoln Highway came in 1914. Its remnants lie just a few miles north of the ranch. As America’s first coast-to-coast highway, the Lincoln Highway brought so much life to the town. But then, new highways came, and everyone forgot about the promise Toledo held.
For the years we went there to pick apples, White Oak Ranch grew switchgrass, a native prairie grass that Arnie was paid by the government to grow as part of a complicated series of efforts at conservation and to avoid driving the price of soy and corn too low. The grass spreads out across the farm until it’s time to harvest the grass for seed. Even though the grass is planted new every spring, it feels like nothing has changed here in centuries. For years, my husband helps his grandfather with the harvest and even though they use giant combines that gnaw at the grass with their iron teeth, it feels like part of us is melding with the past. I bring them jugs of water and sandwiches, feeling like Laura scurrying out to help Pa. I love it, but like Laura, I, too, feel left out. One year, I ask to help. Arnie doesn’t say “no,” nor does he say “yes.” I would push the issue; I am a capable modern woman after all. But I’m the trespasser here. So, I never ask again. I glare at deer leaping from the field and say, “I’m someone on the Internet!” They don’t care, no one does. On the farm, we all recede to the past. Even the structures built to hold tractors and combines have ceded to the land. The newer tin barn sits next to older barns, which molder near even older foundations. Here on the farm, everything man-made collapses into the earth instead of rising up from it.
Every year, for eleven years, Arnie and Betty invite my husband and I to pick apples with a phone call in early fall and we go. We meet them at the house for a lunch of Folger’s and mayonnaise-based salads and then head out to the farm. There we cart out boxes and bags on the four-wheeler, while Arnie and Betty follow behind in the truck. Betty guides us to the trees that have the best apples that year, and instructs me on what they are best for—pies, preserving, eating, sauce. I do my best to remember their shape and feel. The firmer ones are better for cooking. The soft yellow for the sauce. The ones with the red skin streaked with gold, those are for eating. They have no names, these apples. They quietly give us food. And if we weren’t there, they would offer their food to the cows and the ground. Creating and giving back to the earth. A silent ebb and flow.
And I bring home mounds of apples, turning away even more from Betty who thrusts them at me in Fareway bags and tattered boxes. The apples are all asymmetrical and their color is smeared streaks of yellow and red with gray pockmarks. I once bought an apple-corer-slicer-peeler contraption, but had to give it away when I realized the mutt farm apples were too crooked and pulpy to be mechanized.
They sit on the kitchen table in boxes and in paper bags and they smell of warm grass and sweet rot. Row after row of red, yellow, green, smeared, knobby, lumpy, scarred apples. They are a mottled army, marshaling to the command of my feminine obligation.
What do I do with all of this? I core, peel, slice, and put away. My hands cramp from using the paring knife. I sit and watch TV, until midnight, the apples growing brown, and I toss them with lemon juice and cinnamon, I throw them in pie shells to freeze, I put them in apple crisp mixture and freeze. I stuff them into the crockpot to make applesauce. But I can’t bring myself to can them. It’s too much work and I’m tired. The sweet, wet smell of decaying leaves filters in from the screen door and the windows that I leave open. It’s October and our ninety-year-old home is always freezing in the morning and hot in the afternoon, but I won’t close the windows. I love the earthy death smell of fall.
I lay a blanket on the floor of the living room so I can watch TV while I work and I set up stations. There is one for peeling, one for coring, and another for slicing, I put them in giant buckets and bowls of water with lemon to stop them from browning. But I don’t have enough buckets, so I have to periodically stop to put the apples in freezer bags. Apple juice covers my hands and my pants, brown slugs of smushed apple get on the floor and under my fingernails. I find worms crawling in the skins and toss them out the front door. My hands cramp my back aches. I feel wet and tired and there are three boxes left to go.
One year, the year my father-in-law dies, I do nothing with the apples. They sit in boxes on my kitchen table for days and weeks. I give them to friends and neighbors, but there are still more. They seemed to multiply, like the Biblical story of the widow and her oil, which through divine help never runs dry. But here the apples seem like a curse. They die so quickly. And soon they are all wet and moldy, and juice seeps out from the boxes onto the table. I throw them in the yard waste container one day before my husband comes home. They plop to the bottom with a juicy smack, the smell of vinegar hits me and I close the lid. I tell him that I gave them all away. It’s too hard that year to tell him of more loss, more waste.
I ask Betty how she does this every year. Pitting cherries and plums, drying black walnuts, putting away apples, harvesting from the garden—onions, potatoes, squash, broccoli, raspberries, dill, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, the bounty is arduous.
“You just put it away,” she tells me. “You have to eat. So, you just put it all away. That’s your job.”
This is not said gently. This is a command.
We don’t have to pick the apples, but we do. I feel compelled every year to take them as offerings, listening to them tumble and roll out of the boxes in my trunk on the long ride home, where my hands chafe with the sweet, stinging juice and the work of them.
Then I curse them and resent them. I tell my husband he needs to help me. I contemplate throwing them all away. I imagine running from them. Days later, when I give a friend with a new baby some apple crisp and apple muffins, I love them again.
Since the Garden of Eden, the apple has been the burden of women.
It was an apple after all that Aphrodite clutches in her hand. It was a golden apple that caused the Trojan War, and it was apples that Zeus gave to Hera on their wedding day that Hercules later tried to steal. In Norse mythology, the goddess Idunn guards the apples that keeps the gods young. An apple peel tossed over a young girl’s shoulder will spell out the name of her husband to be.
Apples represent the beautiful forbidden—the things that will make and unmake us. Our salvation and our curse. Blessing and a curse—it’s the dichotomy handed down from Eve, who bit that first fruit. Apples nourish, but they condemn, and so, too, does my femininity. Every strength a weakness and every weakness a strength.
Apples were brought to America by the colonists at Jamestown, who grew them for cider. That first settlement starved, even amid the bounty of the new land. I imagine untamed America as the colonist first saw it in Jamestown. How feral and vast it must have been. Tangles of trees and shrubs and, tucked away behind the snarl of nature, the foreign fruits, persimmons, crabapples, serviceberries, pawpaws, and mulberries. What to do with all these wild and weird fruits? How to prepare them and eat them?
The first settlers of Jamestown in 1607 had almost no women at all. The group that arrived in 1608 had two women, and one died almost right away. According to Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife, the Virginia Company took it upon themselves to ship over boatloads of single women to the colony. While the men cleared the land and planted the seed, someone needed to harvest the fruits and help figure out what to do with all the bounty of the land, but the woman came to America and were faced with foreign soil. Foreign land, strange fruit, and men who expected to be fed. They starved.
Between 1609–1610 is known as the Starving Time. Archeologists have found remains of dogs, cats, and rats, all butchered and eaten. There was even the body of a fourteen-year-old girl, whose skull bore marks of a butcher’s knife, trying to separate flesh from bone.
Sometimes I imagine my children alone in the house. Perhaps I’m dead in an accident or an aneurysm. How will they eat? Amid all the food in the house, can they prepare it? I make myself sick imagining them starving. There is food all around them, but can they open a can? Do they know how to go to the freezer? Can they open the door and pull out a loaf of bread from the excess? Will they let it thaw or will they eat it cold? I cry imagining them starving in the middle of excess.
So, I show them how to get food from the fridge. I let them scoot stools up to the counter and grab snacks whenever they want. I clear out a small cupboard and fill it with food they can access. I show my daughter how to make toast; I buy milk in the half gallon so she can pour it. I show her how to use the coffee maker to get hot water and make oatmeal for her little brother. This is your food, take and eat. I want them never to feel like I am holding back. It’s Eden, but nothing is forbidden.
“If you are hungry, eat!” I say cheerfully, trying not to betray my worries of hunger that lie just beneath my wide smile. “This is your house, too!”
I don’t explain it and I don’t even try. My six-year-old grabs apples and bananas. She pulls cheese sticks from the fridge and offers her little brother a Go-GURT.
Once, when they were two and four, I came downstairs after taking a shower and saw them eating waffles they had pulled out from the trash. Hours-old butter and syrup stained the couch and matted in their sticky hair.
I laughed. But I was also upset. Not because of the mess, but because I had forced them to eat breakfast only an hour before. I had made them cinnamon waffles with homemade strawberry syrup. They’d both refused even a bite, drinking only their smoothies and a few bananas. I’d tossed the food in the trash, angry that they’d refused such a good breakfast. Now they were eating garbage, complete with bits of paper and carrot skin, and I wanted to cry. Weren’t my offerings good enough for you? My children are cruel little deities who reject my best offerings for trash. My mom laughed when I told her this story. And I think of all the food she’s made me that I’ve turned my nose up at only to eat a Toaster Strudel instead.
I think of the trees creating their fruit and dropping it to the ground. The offerings gone to waste, the labors ignored. Is this my life, to labor always, whether or not my offerings are deemed worthy?
I’m tired of working and raising two children who both refuse to eat. In that moment, I would give anything to have my mother offer me food. I think of this and start to cry, but she can’t hear my tears over the phone. She’s too busy laughing.
Apples grew well in the American Eden. The seeds especially, because they produced plants so unlike their parents. They were more sturdy, various, and plentiful, their heterozygosity allowing them to find root in the new world. But while the variety was their strength, it was also their weakness. Those little bastard children of their more noble European varieties were not edible without preparation and honing and breeding. But cows ate them, shit the seeds, planted more, and more, men grafted and bred, until American apples now dominate the market. And now what to do with all the fruit that dropped low and luscious from the trees? Shit and seedlings, bringing forth the consequences that women grapple with—paring, coring, slicing, canning, drying, baking, stewing, boiling. The joy and terror of bounty.
Apple cider. Applesauce. Apple hash. Apple gratin. Apple pie. Apple bread. Apple tart. Apple brandy. Apple tandey. Apple vinegar. Apple butter. Apple preserves. Apple jelly. Apple cordial. Apple cake.
In Eden, consumption has steep costs. And fruit bears a strange ambivalence. The constant work of it, the joy of being full. Every year the average American eats nearly a ton of food. How many hours of preparation? How many swollen feet? How many cramping hands? We eat and swallow, putting it all away like it’s our job.
Betty tells me I am ridiculous (and I am, all this whining about plenty). Or course we want to eat. Of course we use everything. Would I rather starve? Or maybe I’m one of those city girls lured by the convenience of a grocery store. “Someone works for your food,” says Betty, “whether you see it or not.”
But while I love the first fruits of her offerings, I hate the work that comes with them. “Fuck squash,” I mutter, as I roast one after another, pureeing them into pies and bars. “Fuck apples,” I mutter as one in the morning approaches and my hands are sticky and my feet swollen from work.
One September, I canned thirty jars of salsa and fifty cans of sauce and they were all given away or consumed by the end of November. Fuck tomatoes.
It’s such an American thing to be terrified by the overwhelming work of bounty—to run away from plenty. But as I wash, prepare and put away, I realize how little actually fills me. The work is making me sweat. I’m burning calories. And because I’m an American woman, I wonder casually if this counts as a workout and whether it will help me lose weight. While I think this, my husband comes in and out of the kitchen, tasting the sauce, slurping up long apple skins. He helps, he leaves, he eats the pies and muffins, the bars, and cakes. He skims chunks of apple, licks bits of batter, the bounty fills him while I am depleted.
From the moment Eve took that ill-timed bite in paradise, women have been condemned by the fruit of the earth. We must prepare it endlessly. We must not eat it.
*It makes sense to me that Johnny Appleseed, a man, would travel God’s earth spreading his profligate seed. And then women are doomed to their lives trying to make that seed into something useful. And from an early age I learned to how to. I won first place in a church pie contest at ten with a sour cream apple pie.
My mother still brags about this feat. Laughing at the memory faces of the women who were defeated by a small, skinny, awkward girl who didn’t ever eat much pie to begin with. I think my mom inflates my accomplishment. I remember that the sky was gray and I was embarrassed because my sister was upset she didn’t win. She got second place. I won a pie cutter and she got a rolling pin.
“Make your pie,” my mom tells me on holidays. “We love your pie.”
The recipe isn’t mine. It belonged to a woman who is a dear friend of my mother’s, Linda, but my whole life I’ve baked Linda’s pie like it belonged to me. I didn’t want to make it. But from the moment I won that prize, it was foisted on me. Linda’s sour cream apple pie became my pie. I cooked it for my future father-in-law and brother-in-laws and for Arnie and Betty before I was a member of the family. And for a whole year, I cooked the pie almost every week, testing and tweaking it until I thought I perfected it and entered it into the Iowa State Fair.
I posted the recipe online and Linda sent me a Facebook message. “You sure tarted up a perfectly good recipe,” she wrote.
I never wrote back.
I lost the state fair pie contest. I didn’t even get honorable mention and my pies were tossed in the trash. So what could I say to Linda? That I made her pie better? All I had done was try to make something my own. But I don’t even know why I did it in the first place. Some days, I don’t know if I really like making pie or if my husband just likes consuming it. I can’t tell where my offerings end and his desires begin. After I lose, I don’t make another pie for a year.
And when I do make pie again, it’s key lime. But I don’t like that either. I stop making pie completely and in two more years, we stop going to the farm together. He takes the kids alone. I stay home and work. The way things are with us, I may never return to the farm again. I am tired of feeding him. I’m tired of feeling empty.
There are theories and strategies for feeding picky children. But in the end, whatever I do, cooking and feeding is a three-times-a-day battle that exhausts me. Cooking is something I used to love. I loved the steady, exact ritual of it. I loved the way food acts like a coda to the movement of my day. It is also a bodily act of love. It’s something I do with my hands that feeds the people I love and I know that even if I have failed that day with my words or my attentions, that I can still fill my children. Except sometimes, they refuse to be full.
I am often told by more experienced moms not to worry. That my children won’t starve. That they eat what they need. Except for half a year, my son is required to go into the doctor for regular check-ups to make sure he’s not getting too skinny. A once-solid baby, he’s slipped off the charts because he won’t eat protein. My doctor assures me it’s no big deal. They just want to monitor him for a little bit and make sure there is no underlying issue. I accept this offering and don’t question it. But I walk out of the office feeling like a failure.
I begin making him regular smoothies packed full of Greek yogurt and fruit. I give him protein bars and I’m always offering him snacks. He’s so skinny it breaks my heart. But the moons of his cheeks wax wide when he smiles. He grows tall, not wide.
My parents tell me I was a skinny kid, too. My dad used to make jokes about me having Failure to Thrive, which in hindsight, isn’t really a funny joke at all. But I’m tempted to make them about my son, just to relieve my own anxiety. He’s three years old and still can wear shorts for an eighteen-month-old. The doctor decides he’s fine and the visits end without ceremony.
There is so much love in food and so much grace in its giving. In Take This Bread, by Sara Miles, she quotes a bishop who told her, “There is a hunger beyond food that is expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a miracle.” This is why meals are so fraught in our home. Because food is never just food. It’s my labor, my offering. But how can a child know that? How can they understand that homemade cinnamon rolls every Sunday are supposed to say something that I cannot form with my words? All they know is the taste and their own immediate need.
The next fall, the children go to White Oak Ranch with their father. The next week, I take them to pick apples at a friend’s house. My friends have a small, twenty-acre farm with fruit trees and a garden, and a yard that slopes down into the train tracks that haul cars full of wheat to the Quaker Oats plant. My friends gave me a basket that strapped to my chest and I could fill it with apples, then pull a string and the bottom would fall out, emptying my apples into a crate.
As I filled the basket, the weight of the apples pulled on me. I felt pregnant again. My back hurt in all those same places. Muscle memory wakes up and all those old places burned once again. I hobbled over to the bucket and pulled the cord. The apples fell from my fake belly, out between my legs and I laughed so hard someone drove over in a truck to help me carry them and find out what was wrong with me. I just ate an apple and rode back, my feet dangling from the tailgate.
We stayed there all night, adults and children, coring apples, drinking the home-brewed beer, eating the gas-station pizza, and making cider. It didn’t even feel like work and my children chased fireflies and threw sticks into a fire, their faces sticky with apple residue. And I still have so many questions about how much of me to give. How much of my effort is needed? How much of it is wasted? Is my labor a form of control? Or in it do I find nourishment? Are these questions themselves a form of labor?
I drove back home that night, my car filled with four gallons of cider, my children, myself, the diminishing shouts of friends waving goodbye—in that moment, it’s all I need.