When my mother was a child, living in a small village in Vietnam, her aunt returned from travels west carrying a single red apple. The family, from the eldest to the smallest child, gathered as her aunt unwrapped tissue paper to reveal the first apple (qua tao in Vietnamese) any of them had ever seen. Her grandmother received the honor of cutting this exotic and extravagant fruit into 32 slices. Then everyone feasted in silence, savoring as slowly as possible.
Immigrating to the U.S. years later with my sister and me in tow, my mother arrived at a house with three apple trees in the backyard. To this day she confesses that their laden branches, first sighted during October’s splendor, sealed her decision to settle. After sending photographs of the windfall to her family as evidence of American prosperity, she quickly set about learning the art of cooking apples.
My mother absorbed much of her English from reading recipes, and a thin volume on apples borrowed repeatedly from our local library provided her with years of lessons. Early every autumn, she took a week’s vacation to prepare apple jelly, cider, vinegar, butter, dumplings, cakes, pies and countless other apple concoctions.
Apples boiled into jelly on the stove, while in the oven another bushel melted into sauce. In the corner of our living room, a dehydrator hummed day through night. As my mother packed her annual shipments of clothing and medicine for relatives in Vietnam, she lined the boxes with bags upon bags of sweet, chewy apple slices. She reveled in having, finally, too much of a good thing.
We still joke about the apple wheat muffins that defined Sunday morning and the pork chops with apples that sneaked up on us every Wednesday night. Although we obediently ate everything our mother prepared, my sister and I much preferred to eat our fruit crisp off the trees, our greed tempered only occasionally by worms or stomach aches.
We discovered that unripe apples could taste like green mangoes, especially if dipped in that syrupy mix of fish sauce, sugar and black pepper that flavors popular Vietnamese snacks. Long before star fruit or cilantro appeared in nearby grocery stores, we arranged slivers of green apple next to lettuce leaves, cucumber and mint to wrap with our spring rolls.
Each tree bore a unique kind of apple. We never traced their botanic lineage but gave them such ignoble names as “the corner tree” or “the old tree” or “the green tree.” But with time, we learned and accepted their attributes like old friends.
My own favorite offered green-gold apples with an enduring tartness, their flesh so fine-textured and juicy it shone translucent with every bite. This tree also happened to be the one closest to the house, a definite advantage when snack pangs hit.
We left the fruit on the other two trees for my mother to gather and cook. From the corner tree came red- and green-streaked apples destined for pies, cobblers and jellies. The gnarled tree by the garden provided deep red apples with russeted shoulders and a creamy texture perfect for applesauce. Its fruit dropped easily, covering the ground beneath the tree like fragrant cobblestones.
Next to the polished beauties in the supermarket, the apples from our trees looked sadly small and misshapen. My mother used to reassure us that worms know good fruit, and that scabs on apples, just like scabs on people, mean a life full of flavor. Now, like some culinary curmudgeon, I look askance at fancy store-dressed fruit and rove the farmers’ markets hoping to find my old friends, flaws and all.
Twenty-five years and many moves later, my family still remembers the apple trees that first welcomed us to our home in America. One week before my sister married, she received a stack of recipe cards. Along with her favorite pork and cabbage soup and shrimp fried rice, she found a chocolate cake recorded in our mother’s familiar script. Its secret ingredient?
Applesauce, of course.