The first time I really tasted apple cider…

…was in Hannibal, Missouri, in a park perched on the bluff of the Mississippi River. I was thirteen, and my freshman class had just trounced the sophomores in the annual October flag-football tradition known as the Turkey Bowl. Despite the flags, this was a grudge match: a hard-hitting battle that left most everyone nursing a few bruises, and the sophomore class nursing their egos for, oh… the next three years.

To celebrate we frosh toasted each other with plastic cups of cold, fresh-pressed cider from an orchard a stone’s throw down the road. I still think the sky has never been as blue, the air as clear, the oak leaves more golden than on that glorious day. And certainly the cider never so sweet and refreshing.

I’ve tasted lots of ciders since. And while none has ever matched the perfect, sweet cold essence of ten thousand thousand apples of that autumn victory — just between you and me, I can’t really expect any ever would — there are two that have come close.

In Kansas City, Stephenson’s was more than an apple orchard, it was a more than a restaurant, it was a tradition. It was where our family went to celebrate, where we took friends for an unforgettable experience, and where we only ever managed to save room for dessert once… and that was by cheating. Their roasted chicken was incredible, the beef brisket divine, the apple fritters addictive. But maybe the best part of Stephenson’s was waiting to be seated in one of the restaurant’s crazy, tangled knot of rooms, ’cause waiting meant helping yourself to the barrel of apple cider while you perched on a bench and marveled at the ancient farm implements and curiosities from ages gone by that filled the labyrinthine foyer of the old place. Sure, you could buy Stephenson’s cider most anywhere in Kansas City… but wherever you might buy it, it was never as good as the stuff that came out of that barrel.

Sadly, it appears that Stephenson’s is no more… at least the restaurant. I hear the orchard is still there, so maybe they’re pressing cider, still.

But I said two… and the second is maybe the more remarkable, for a number of reasons. The first is that Adam’s Apple Orchard is just a mile down the road from my home in Vermont. That’s handy in all sorts of ways… in summer months they’re our go-to place for fresh produce, much of it grown right there.

Apple Blossoms

The orchard itself is sited on one of the prettiest pieces of land this side of the green mountains — you can see Camel’s Hump in one direction, the Mansfield range in another — it’s especially nice in the spring when the apple blossoms are blooming.

But it’s the cider — fresh-pressed, unpasteurized, unfiltered, unmessed with —  that’s the remarkable thing. It’s got that taste… of gold and russet autumns, blue skies and the oh-so-sweet, crisp, tart essence of ten thousand thousand fruit.

After Apple-picking

by Robert Frost
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still.
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didnt pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem-end and blossom-end.
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking; I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

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