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.
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.