It is the eve before Thanksgiving. My bags are packed and placed at the front door and my heartbeat quickens with anticipation. I am going home. I couldn’t be more excited.
As I lean in to close and lock the drafty window above my bed I notice that familiar scent – of pies being baked – that floats up the interior courtyard of my apartment building. A bouquet of apple, pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan tease me as they gently crawl up the curtain of my bedroom window. The aroma is so alluring I am tempted to stay and beg the family in 5F for a dinner invitation. But I have a train to catch and I have somewhere to be.
I spent last Thursday in Hampton Bays in the home that I was born and raised with family, friends and food. I was also lucky enough to get a glimpse into another very special family – The Halsey Family – who have lived (and farmed) in these parts for over 350 years.
With my belly full from my large thanksgiving feast (two feasts actually – we ate twice!) I ventured East to the area known as Mecox, in the town of Water Mill, in the heart of the Hamptons. This is not the Hamptons of bikini bathing suits and summer houseshares. This is the Hamptons that I know. A Hamptons filled with fields of grapes and green pastures, of open skies and orange pumpkins, of farmers markets and fruit stands – and of backyards filled with apple orchards and peach trees.
I spent a few hours of my Thanksgiving weekend at The Milk Pail Family Farm & Orchard which has been under the watchful eye of the Halsey family for generations.
Driving down the long and windy Mecox Road – lined with farms and fields, and bordered by corn crops and pumpkin patches – I feel a sense of provincial peacefulness as I arrive at #723. The grit and stress of those NYC streets are both a distant memory now. As I walk up to the house, along the stone steps, I am greeted by the newest and youngest member of the Halsey family – a blond haired and blue eyed little guy named Will. Will is only 14 months old but – as the 13th generation in a family of farmers – he is already taking a liking to the outdoors, just like his mother, Jenn Halsey.
We wave goodbye to Will, and Jenn takes me on a gentle drive through her 20 acres of apple trees as we chat about apples and about family life on the farm. In the US there are over 100 varieties of apples that are commercially grown and New York State is the 2nd largest apple producer. The Halsey orchard is filled with a small but well chosen 26 varieties. All of the apple trees here are semi dwarf trees reaching only about eight feet in height – perfect for apple picking – no ladders are required! And at 5’7″ I could eat apples for days without ever going hungry.
It is a windy and rainy day and off in the distance the water level from the picturesque Mecox Bay is rising as we ride along. Jenn and I retreat inside the country store to warm up and to get a glimpse of the fruits born from these orchards. A sea of apples in every variety – sweet, crisp fujis and tart, juicy Jonagolds – are propped up and packaged in small white bags with a handle atop. Perfect little briefcases of Braeburns. Everywhere I look are apples in every form imaginable; homemade apple crumb pies, freshly dehydrated apple slices, jugs of apple cider by the gallon and apple cider donuts sizzling hot and fresh, just out of the fryer. Biblically speaking, apples are a symbol of temptation. They remind us of the innocence we once had. They are also that perfect present for your favorite teacher. They are wholesome, hearty and sweet – just like the Halsey’s.
I am standing in the most coveted corner of the country store where I am put in charge of monitoring the apple cider donut making process – a fairly simple process where donut mix is blended with apple cider instead of water to give it that unique flavor. Simple or not, the moment that delicious dough hits the hot oil, the chimes on the front door of the shop begin a continual track of music as customers come running to my corner to collect their hot, fresh treats. I feel like the most popular kid in the class as the donut hungry shoppers glance through the glass window to get a glimpse of me and my donuts. Although I am sure that between the two of us – the donuts definitely win the prize.
In between the ringing chimes and the rush of customers – and off in the corner by the the Granny Smiths and the Golden Delicious – I can hear Jenn and her sister Amy discussing plans for Amy’s upcoming wedding. They’re so busy they didn’t even see me sneak a nibble of a donut – hot out of the fryer. This is half the fun of my job. The pace is steady but slow inside this little shop: the 40-year old donut machine continues to drop perfect rings of dough into the boiling hot vegetable oil and the girls continue to chatter about the upcoming nuptuals – both filling the shop with a sense of sweetness. And I realize… the lines between work and family are blurred here – and that’s the way the Halsey’s like it.
The Halsey’s have been farming for over 350 years on this land. Generations #11 and #12 – John & Evelyn Halsey and their two daughters – all live within 20 paces of one another on the orchard. It seems as if everything they need is only steps from their back door. It makes me think about my own far and wide search – when sometimes what I am looking was already within reach.
I have traveled the globe in search of new friendships, when my very own sister is a 50 minute train ride away. I have looked for wisdom from my neighbors who pontificate on the stoops below my building, when my own wise aunts and uncles are just over the Brooklyn Bridge. I have sought the solace of a father figure when my own father is only a phone call away. I even ask netflix for advice on which films might perfectly fit my personality, when my very own brother-in-law always seems to know better. This gets me thinking – about my efforts to Google every answer to every question when my own unlived life awaits. In fact, maybe everything I need is right in front of me – just waiting to be harvested.
Of all the things I experienced in my day on the farm, I am most awed by the process by which apples are transformed into apple cider. Red, ripe and perfectly round apples are hand-picked, washed and ground – seeds, core, stems and all – into a mash or pulp called pomace. Layers of apple pulp are wrapped up by hand like christmas presents, packaged in cloth and placed between metal racks – 13 layers in all. A hydraulic press squeezes down – 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch – and the juice flows free. It takes alot of apples – about 36 – to create just one gallon of apple cider.
With my hands still scented with the sweetness of those cider donuts – and as we are layering and pressing the apple pulp – I learn that apple cider is essentially apple juice that is unfiltered so it retains all that apple-y goodness – course pulp and sediment included. Most juices also add additional water and other ingredients to maintain a lighter flavor and a clarity of color. Trust me, once you taste the rich and hearty taste of apple cider – watered down juice will simply not suffice.Vodpod videos no longer available.
Pure, unadulturated, unsweetened, unfiltered, undeniably good apple cider is born. But 2,200 pounds of pressure is a significant amount of stress on those sweet shiny apples. Which gets me thinking about pressure and how much of it we place on ourselves and on our loved ones.
I sometimes seek a stress-free life. In the past, when my friends and family would place demands on me I felt weighed down by the pressure of those obligations and responsibilities. But as I watch those 2,200 pounds squeezing the life from those apples, and I taste the sweet apple cider that results – I am reminded that in order the get to the good stuff – those deep and meaningful relationships – sometimes we have to endure a little pressure.
In apple cider making – much like in family life – even though it might sometimes feel like you are being squeezed by a force of 2,200 pounds, you have to remember – that’s how you get to the juice. The Halsey Family knows this well.
My afternoon is winding down. I covered alot of acres and learned alot of apple lessons today. And although those apple cider donuts are calling my name, there are thanksgiving leftovers waiting for me from my own family. But the next time you find yourself way out east on the end of that very long island you must promise me you’ll swing by The Milk Pail, say hello to John, Evelyn, Jenn, Amy and little Will – and stay for a while. You will surely satisfy your craving for fresh squeezed apple cider, hot apple cider donuts and for family-time too.
A little Seinfeld apple/farm reference – watch the first 2.5 minutes!Vodpod videos no longer available.