Applejacking

Ginger Strand

In the zombie apocalypse, booze will be as fungible as ammo. And it was a vague desire to be zombie-ready that caused my husband, Bob, and me to learn to make hard cider. Something about country living brings out your inner prepper. We keep a manual grinder and a propane camp stove in our house in the Catskill Mountains so that when the power goes out, we can make coffee and not kill each other. But this is mere household readiness, not prepping for survival in a WROL situation. People who use the acronym WROL (“without rule of law”) tend to be apocalypse-minded conspiracy theorists. Bob and I aren’t, but we do share a smidgeon of their survivalist impulse. It propelled us to start applejacking.

The Catskills are already a bit zombified: they’re depopulated. In the nineteenth century, people came with dreams of farming—dreams that cracked up against countless rocks. (Local saying: “For every four rocks, one dirt.”) By the 1870s, farms and whole towns were being abandoned, and a century and a half later, the only signs left of many of them are stone walls and apple trees. You can be miles from roads or houses, deep in the Catskills wilderness, and stumble upon an overgrown orchard. Untended and gnarly, the trees have gone feral, hoarding their small, ugly fruits out of reach in witchy tops. They are breeds no one recognizes anymore: Arkansas Black, Esopus Spitzenburg, Ellis Bitter, Dabinett. Black bears eat them, but few people do. They weren’t planted for eating; they were planted to make cider.

What wine is to southern France, hard cider is to the northeastern US. It’s the full expression of our terroir, the best product of our inherited expertise. Inherited but not native, since the apple is not indigenous to North America; it’s actually an immigrant from Kazakhstan. But it came to the continent with the Europeans, and like them it displaced natives to put down roots. It even interbred with native crab apples. From colonial times to the early 1800s hard cider and small beer were popular everyday beverages. Even children drank them. But during the temperance movement, farmers were urged not to sell their apples for demon drink. Some used apples to fatten pigs and feed cattle. Others chopped down orchards, or burned seedlings. By 1862, so many orchards had been abandoned or destroyed that Henry David Thoreau waxed nostalgic about a time “when men both ate and drank apples.”

Drinking apples is back now, with a plethora of artisanal brands and adorable cideries. Catskills old-timers find this ludicrous, and they assured us there was nothing to making the stuff. All you had to do was go see the Hubbells, locals who run a century-old cider press for fun on fall weekends. But there was a hitch: to get an appointment, you needed five bushels of apples. The old trees on our land produce a handful of apples that are cleaned out by bears, who swing in and out of them like overgrown monkeys. We had two options: purchase or theft.

Bob and I have been together for twenty-two years, and I won’t say we’ve grown tired of each other, but time, familiarity, and routine wear away at excitement. But crime: What could be more exciting than that? We started spending weekends driving around looking for untended trees, for apples to liberate. Let’s go applejacking, we’d say. We kept a pile of bags in the car, and we would pull up to a likely tree, look around for other vehicles, and then pick as fast as we could. If a car snuck up on us, I would pose with my cell phone, making like a tourist photographing a tree, while Bob hid in the underbrush. We focused on trees near the side of the road, but trespassing was unavoidable. I am an enthusiastic trespasser. Bob is not. Yet somehow, there he was. Cidermania had transformative potential it seemed.

We found apple trees at the edge of a cemetery, apple trees on a hunting club’s land, apple trees in the yard of a house that was for sale. Near an abandoned farmhouse, we found a tree bearing different apple breeds on its grafted branches. That same farmhouse had a pear tree, so we liberated those too. Then one day, while exploring some gangly, untended trees along a dead-end road, we hit the jackpot. Behind some scrubby woods, we came upon an entire orchard, its trees sagging under the weight of unpicked fruit. I wanted to pirate at once, but Bob resisted. There was an email address on the No Trespassing sign, so he wrote the owner asking if we could harvest his untended orchard. When we didn’t hear back, Bob looked up the property in the tax rolls. The owner lived in another state. Bob agreed to relax his principles. We parked up the road and collected at least three bushels, leaving the bags in the ditch as we filled them, to be picked up later. That day, we made an appointment with the Hubbells.

Bob grew up in suburbs, but I grew up on a farm. In addition to that, he’s an engineer, and a rationalist, while I am a pragmatist. When we bought our land, it became clear that I am a conservationist, but Bob is a preservationist. Every tree we had to cut down, every rock that was moved, caused him deep emotional pain. I was never happier than when I hired two guys with earthmovers and had them tearing up the place. When they buried a boulder Bob liked, he made them unbury it, and then he spent an afternoon hosing it down to put it back exactly the way it was.

Growing up on a farm, you get used to change: nothing ever stays the same. You get used to death: chickens, rabbits, goats, horses, cats—I’ve watched them all go down to various sad demises. At some point, armed with my reading of Freud and my dentist’s old issues of Psychology Today, I diagnosed Bob’s resistance to change as a pathological fear of completion, probably brought on by the premature death of his mother. When I reported this conclusion, the reception was predictably frosty. Bob and I are alike in our disbelief in an afterlife, but while I think about death constantly, Bob doesn’t like to think about it at all. I have at times considered this a fundamental incompatibility, because it will inevitably affect how each of us will face growing old.

But cidermaking was all about change: from apples to cider to fermented booze, an actual embrace of things rotting and turning into something else. It felt profound. At least to me it did. I think Bob was most excited to have an excuse to buy a hydrometer. We also differed on the question of equipment. Country people value the art of “making do.” I wanted to ferment the cider in some drywall buckets, then decant it into old Almaden bottles from a midden left behind by the former owners of our land. But Bob wanted gear, so we found a local home-brew supply store: an old barn packed with carboys, airlocks, and stills. The proprietor was definitely of the deep-state conspiracy camp. He had a poster on his wall showing Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini with the slogan: “World leaders agree: gun control works!”

On a crisp October Saturday, we backed our car up to the Hubbells’ barn and unloaded our stolen apples onto a conveyor belt. The barn was a death trap, with hatches and ladders and belts and flywheels everywhere just waiting to strangle an unsuspecting visitor with her own scarf. You and your apples entered on the upper story, and proceeded to the floor below, you by ladder, your apples—having been crushed—via a chute. The pomace—apple mush—oozed into the press, an impressive iron-and-wood contraption the size of a truck. The two-stroke engine fired up, and after what seemed like a long time, juice began gurgling out a spout at the bottom. All the old-timers who had been hanging around now cranked into gear: they took out Dixie cups and tasted the cider. Tart, they said, but good.

At home, we sterilized all our equipment with a food-grade sanitizer and poured the cider into two buckets. We fitted both with airlocks, and that was it. All that remained was to wait. We had never felt more zombie-ready. But the weekend yawned before us. What would we do with ourselves if we weren’t applejacking? Let’s just go look around, we said. Before long, we were raiding more apple trees. We couldn’t stop. We began to understand criminal compulsion. It wasn’t the cider we wanted; it was the thrill of theft.

In England, to go “scrumping” is to filch apples. In the UK I could say that Bob and I couldn’t stop scrumping and not be misunderstood. In the end, we collected only a couple more bushels—too few to go back to the Hubbells. But a guy in town—one of those eccentrics who fills his yard with sculptures made of old tractor parts—had a press. He looked like Bilbo Baggins and his apple press looked like one from Hobbiton: a wooden bucket with a lid that squeezed down when you cranked a big screw on top. He didn’t charge for the use of it: he seemed to be in it for the entertainment.

This whole operation was far less rigorous than the first one. I crushed the apples with a log in a drywall bucket. Bob walked in circles pushing a metal rod to crank the screw; juice trickled out into a plastic container. Bilbo sat there merrily drinking a beer and praising our industry. A pair of cats wandered in and out. We took that batch home and didn’t bother sterilizing anything. It was infused with cat hair, after all. We just fitted its lid with an airlock.

Soon after that winter came, and there were no more apples to scrump. Life seemed to diminish. We decanted the cider into carboys when it stopped bubbling, and bottled it at one month. We made it to the holidays before cracking one open. The first batch was good: bone-dry, but with a noticeable apple flavor. But it was the second batch, Bilbo’s batch, that was the real prize. It tasted like apple juice that had grown up, like apples that had learned to accept their differences. It had hints of the dryness of time and the bitterness of death, mellowed by the sweet tinge of larceny. It was six percent alcohol: just enough, after a couple of glasses, to give you that glowy feeling, as if you were getting something for nothing, as if you might live forever.

Ginger Strand is the author of one novel and three books of narrative nonfiction, most recently The Brothers Vonnegut: Science and Fiction in the House of Magic.