Round, red, ripe 'n rich

The sign on the roadside stand said ASTRIKINS, but I didn't stop. The Red Astrachan apple was never a keeper, much less a shipper, and I'm leery about finding any in any kind of a market. It was, rather, a boy's apple, to be found on the ground under the tree in the dew of late August and early September mornings, to be stuffed into pockets on the way to the brook, or to the secret places in the back woodlot, or to be chewed along the way on the saddest day of the year - the day school first ''keeps.'' Some of them would go soft on the way to the house, even, so for a pie one always brought more than enough and cut away the bad places. I had several Red Astrachan trees in my boyhood, but the important one was by the pasture lane at Gramp's farm.

Gramp lived alone and as the years wore along it was a family duty for somebody, now and then, to visit him to see how he was ''doing,'' and for several years while I was in school I combined that chore with a pleasant vacation. I'd have a summer job, but I'd quit and go to see Gramp the week before school started. There was a ride on the cross-country electric line, and a two-mile walk through the woods to the old ''shingle palace'' house on the hill. Gramp would hug me, assure me ''it gets lonesome here,'' and we'd settle in for some good fun together.

Gramp was a good cook, but even the best cooks get lax when feeding themselves alone, and I was expected to make up for previous lackadaisical fare. My first problem was always fresh milk. Since Gramp had lived alone he hadn't bothered with a milch cow, but bought tinned condensed milk for his ''bohea,'' and now and then a bit of butter from a ''widder-woman'' down the road. He had no ice chest and the coolest place on the farm was the dirt cellar floor. He did , however, have a pasture full of random cattle from which he made a penny in beef, so there was always a fresh cow in the herd and we'd walk up the lane in the late afternoon of my first day and find her. Gramp's cattle were always friendly, so he'd slip a halter over her nose and lead her down to the barn, her calf trotting behind. When my visit was over, he'd put her back in the pasture.

So morning and evening I'd set a jugful of milk and a panful of milk ''down sulla,'' and in a short time the cream line was evident and I suppose the bacteria count would stagger a present-day public health official. My dairy products are now utterly illegal, and a whole generation has no idea what is lost. The tart, distinct, and unique flavor of the Red Astrachan, which cooks up with flecks of red, enhanced with a spooned-on flap of cellar-cured Jersey cream , is such that Gramp would sit at the table, fork poised, waiting for it, and the pie was our whole supper.

There was never a ladder put against that tree. No need. The fruit was claimed as it dropped, and it always dropped at the peak of excellence, or it wasn't claimed at all and went to the squirrels and jays. Deemed wholly a ''summer'' apple, the Red Astrachan, along with the Transparents and the August Sweets, was transient and had no household or market usage to compare with the Gravensteins, the Wealthies, the Duchesses, and the ''late summer'' or ''early fall'' varieties. And certainly it was not an apple as we knew the cellar storage of Baldwins, Spies, Tomkins, Russets, and Bellflowers. But it was the best of the whole bunch of 'em for Gramp and me. You know, that old tree fell apart from age back along, and when I wrote to a half dozen nursery companies the half dozen answers I got were alike: ''No longer available.'' I wonder did they really have ''astrikins'' on that roadside stand, or maybe something ''just as good''?

The Red Astrachan had another virtue - it came along with the late-hanging blackberries. Not the plain blackberry advertising itself in the sun and wind, but the hidden kind that you have to fight for. Deep 'midst the thorns, so Gramp said getting them was like milking a porcupine. Juicy, plump, sweet, and not so seedy. Make a pan of Red Astrachan applesauce, heave in a bumper of those blackberries, and bake a pan of real cellar-floor sour-milk cream-tartar biscuits.


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