In September 1997, Caitlin Desilvey drove north from Missoula’s North Side, under the freeway and up Spurlock Road to a derelict homestead, whose owner Bill Randolph had recently died. She was there to pick apples, on a tip from a city hall bureaucrat named Tim Hall, who worked on open space acquisitions for the Missoula City/County Planning Office. The city of Missoula had purchased the homestead from Randolph’s estate in 1996.
Signs of neglect were everywhere. The tired buildings leaned and sagged, rusted farming implements and wagon parts were strewn about and left for dead, sometimes half swallowed by the earth. And the apple orchard had been feral for more than 40 years.
But somehow all the unpruned years failed to stop those twisted forms from producing a bumper crop. “The apples were as big as babies’ heads,” Desilvey remembers, “and the trees were completely overloaded. The contrast between the abundance on the trees and the dereliction everywhere else was stunning.”
Desilvey volunteered to help the city sort through the homestead’s buildings. One day she found herself in the old kitchen, last used in 1946 and sporting half a century’s dust. In a drawer she found a box of recipes. Piled in with the recipes was a booklet, Apple Talk, published by the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1900s.
By that time, Northern Pacific rails reached into the heart of western apple country, including the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys of Montana, the Snake River country of Idaho, Washington’s Inland Empire, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The pamphlet that Desilvey found buried under a stack of dusty recipes seemed an attempt to increase apple cargo on the railroads. By waxing ecstatic upon the pleasures and health benefits of apples, Northern Pacific hoped to stir up the public’s appetite for the fruit.
“Apples contain as great food values as meat,” claims the booklet. “The fruit should be eaten to a much greater extent than it is at present, because it is nutritious and wholesome.”
Few, meanwhile, would care to refute Apple Talk’s poetic charms, which were quite possibly flowery enough to force a smile from the likes of Henry David Thoreau—although his preferred flavor of apple, a wild apple that’s “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream,” is a far cry from the domesticated version celebrated in Apple Talk.
“Bursting into fragrant bloom and bud in May, it then elaborated its sap into the flesh of the apple and flavored it with sugar, spiced it with wine and wrapped it in its thin but tough integument,” the pamphlet explains. “The breezes fanned it, the showers baptized it, the sun kissed the dew and watched over it and the solar system cradled it in its care.”
Apple Talk contains 55 recipes for serving the apple, including such tried-and-true standards as Apple Dumplings, Apple Charlotte, Apple Sauce Cake, as well as more obscure presentations like Bird’s Nest Pudding and Fig-stuffed Apples. There is also a recipe for Apple Tapioca, which might come as a surprise to some, while others knowingly nod their heads. Some of the best apple pies contain tapioca.
I tried the recipe for Apple Custard and must unfortunately report that it isn’t something I’ll be making again, except maybe for George Bush.
Redemption was quick to arrive in the form of Indian Pudding with Apples. And let me assure you, it takes a top-notch Indian Pudding to impress this Chef Boy. I grew up in New England, where Indian Pudding still lurks on menus and is served in country kitchens. Although it isn’t an Indian recipe adapted by settlers, Indian Pudding contains corn—and back in the day, if it contained corn, it was associated with Native Americans.
“Scald [that means almost boil] two quarts of sweet milk. [If you don’t have sweet milk, go with whole milk.] Stir in one cup of cornmeal until the mixture thickens. Remove from the fire. Add one and one-sixth cups of molasses, one teaspoonful of salt, one-half teaspoonful each of nutmeg and cinnamon and two cups of sweet apples, pared, cored and quartered. Pour into a deep pudding dish and bake for four hours. [A temperature recommendation here would be nice. I went with 275, and it was perfect.] When the pudding has baked for one and one-half hours, add without stirring one pint of cold milk. Serve with cream and sugar and syrup.”
Ice cream, I might add, goes very well with this dish. And you can double or triple the amount of apples. And, depending on the sweetness of the substances you serve it with, you could use less molasses.
Come celebrate apple season at the Moon-Randolph Homestead at their annual fall gathering on Oct. 8. Apple cider pressing begins at 3 p.m. A dinner of seasonal soups, local meats, apple pies and more will begin at 5:30 p.m. Montana brews will be for sale. Entrance is $10 for grown-ups, kids cheaper. Call 829-0873 for directions or questions.