"M'am, you can pick up cider and pies from us until Thanksgiving Day. Then we close for the season." The clerk wiped her hands on her apron and handed me a quart of cider, a slab of "Wicked Sharp" Cheddar, a bagful of apple doughnuts, and a jar of Aunt Betty's marmalade. This was my first purchase of the season at the local fruit house.
Year after year, we New Englanders pick up fresh cider, fruit pies, and homemade jams and jellies at the local fruit house. Many of these establishments have a cidermaking operation out back, bringing the sweetness of autumn into crates, barrels, jugs, and jars.
There are very few items that cannot be purchased at a supermarket these days. But the rustic fruit house still stands alongside country roads, largely because it sells pure harvest, with little or no packaging. Families can enjoy the season's beauty only a few feet from where the fruits and vegetables were grown.
Fruit houses have been a part of my life since I was four years old growing up in Connecticut. Just two miles from my home was a place called Fairity's. It backed up to a sprawling orchard of 50 acres of apple trees and a barn with a large cider press. The fruit house was an unheated, wooden building with a front porch that looked out over the main road.
Mrs. Fairity was in charge of the operation. Over her bulky dress she wore a bibbed apron with lots of pockets. On nippy days she wore gloves even when she was indoors. She'd be busy separating gourds - the grotesque from the decorative - or ringing up a customer, swinging her arms to warm her fingers.
The floors were wooden, too, and warped. I can still remember the sound of my mother's high heels clicking on the pine boards while we kids were hanging off the porch railing. My sister Patty liked to ride the railing like a horse, and since my mother disapproved, I'd be the lookout, listening for her approach.
The interior of the house was dark and fragrant. The sides of the room were lined with benches, bowed by the weight of the most outrageous squashes like the knobby Blue Hubbard or the scalloped Pattypans we called "lacy pants." Straw baskets were filled with crab apples, Indian corn, and bittersweet. On the counter beside the cash register, Mrs. Fairity sold her honey, fudge, and candied fruits by the pound.
When we kids weren't getting our hands into the candied apples and caramels, we poked our fingers into the pine knots in the wall while we waited for our mother to pick out the best baking apples. At least five varieties of scarlet apples spilled out of wooden baskets onto the porch floor. Pumpkins lined the steps and tumbled into the doorways. They were the last color of the season.
When my father went with us, he always took us out back to the cider mill, which was in a tall barn a few feet from the fruit house. I remember looking up above the press, beyond the beams and through the loft to the upper-story windows as they caught the afternoon sun. It was dark inside the barn, with just a shaft of gold light filtering down onto the press. It felt like a cathedral.
The cider press was made of oak with layers of frames and apple pulp, waiting to be squeezed under the enormous pressure of a ratchet jack. Soon the sweet golden juice would flow in earnest.
There was only one other fruit house in my childhood. It was Mrs. Walker's house on Halloween night. This neighbor down the street from us was big on autumn's bounty, and instead of candy, she handed out cider and doughnuts. Her house was one we tried to avoid after years of experience with sticky doughnuts in our trick-or-treat bags. For us kids, the whole idea of Halloween was to gather enough candy to hold us till Christmas.
But Mrs. Walker wanted to celebrate the season. She'd haul us into her house, where logs blazed in the fireplace and cups gushed with the bronze nectar of fall. We weren't looking for a party. But the bowl of steamy cider, fragrant with cinnamon, flooded my senses as I entered her kitchen. A basket of apples ready for bobbing looked like shiny rubies. Her jack-o'-lanterns were the funniest and scariest in the neighborhood. We left her house with the glory of autumn inside us, but alas, not much sweeter.
Often when I'm driving on back roads after a fresh snowfall, I'll spot a weather-beaten shack close to the road. Out back, there will be a field of scraggly apple trees whose boughs are laden with snow. Why, that must be a fruit house! I search for a sign or a notice taped to an inside window that reads: BE BACK NEXT FALL. HAPPY HOLIDAYS. Then I know where to buy my cider next year.