The sky is just the sort of blue you’d expect on a clear October day in northeast Kansas. The leaves on the trees are a mix of yellows and tans, greens and orange with a bit of red scattered around on some of the maples. A bit warmer would be okay but it’s still a fine day to be outdoors. A fine day to share a family tradition.
As far back in my youth as I can remember, making cider in western Kentucky was a fall tradition. Paul and I cranked the mill together near the old apple tree in our back yard when we were growing up in Todd County. Dad and I cranked out several gallons in Kelvie Nicholson’s orchard in northern Graves County when I was in high school. Three years ago, four of my sons and I rendezvoused in Calloway County for a big family day.
For Sam, my second oldest, this is his first time, which is a little ironic given that it was this same mill that scarred his finger more than thirty years ago. When he was about four years old, he was playing in the basement with the cider mill. Curiosity about the big metal gears led to several stitches in the inquiring finger. Today, though, the scar is healed, the apples are ripe and his friend, Doug, is here from Florida.
So, we make cider.
Twenty minutes in the orchard finds a few hundred pounds of apple in the back of the truck. Doug asks how many apples it takes to make a liter of cider. A bushel will usually yield three to four gallons so I do a little metric conversion and guess that one bucket of apples will give us a liter. The three of us continue filling up buckets and dumping them into the big trash can in the back of the truck. Owing less to experience and more to my low standards for cider apples, I tend to fill my bucket faster than Sam and Doug.
When it comes to turning the crank on the old mill, though, I can’t keep up with these two. Mostly, I do the other things that accompany milling apples: rinsing, disinfecting and rinsing the apples, pouring up the juice, offering sage advice, etc. When the first batch is done, I dip a paper cup into the little plastic vat and we share sips. “That’s really good,” Doug says appreciatively and we concur.
In less than two hours, we make nearly fifteen gallons of cider. Most of it goes into the big plastic canister for the hard cider I enjoy so much. The rest is kept for fresh juice. All of it becomes part of this good day. After all the cleaning up is done, we sit in the wind and sun, sipping last year’s work.
It may be that the best part of a family tradition is this blending of ancient ritual with fresh friendship. This passing on of ancient art and science brings a blending of being part of something larger than ourselves, a continuing of something good and nourishing.
When we work together and look forward to sharing the fruits of our labor, it somehow seems less like labor.