My good dog, Langston, once brought me along a path farther and muddier than our normal walk. As we climbed the hill under the power lines, I was looking down to avoid getting my feet sucked into the sludge, and I saw apples. I stopped. I thought, “That’s odd!” and, just as in the movies, looked up into the scraggliest old apple tree ever. It seemed to have been struck by lightning at some point, yet it was still bearing and dropping fruit. 

The apples were nothing like you would see in your market; they were ruddy and discolored, misshapen, and some had holes, but they were perfect. I felt like the luckiest teacher on the first day of school. In a small town blessed with overflowing apple orchards, I had found a tree all my own. Forgotten long ago and now in electricity’s path, this glorious tree now had a faithful family to pay it homage, and fall after fall, we’ve hiked to gather its sweet offerings.

The apples were there all along, as were the sunflower seeds, the Queen Anne’s lace, the ramps, the mushrooms, and the hickory nuts. As any wild food forager knows, nature had made sure the harvest was bountiful and we’d been provided for. Jack and Laurel examined every potentially edible apple and discussed its features. “This one’s moldy.” “This one has a worm.” “Something bit this one.” “This one just fell.” “Can Langston eat one?” 

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They attempted to climb the jagged tree, ending up with a few scrapes and a few punctures, then finally got to hauling the bulging bag of red gems back home. We busied ourselves making apple crumble, dehydrated apple rings, John’s famous Tarte Tatin, and apple pancakes. 

Apples are an ideal food. Filled with fiber, antioxidants, and flavonoids, apples help ward off many ailments and diseases, which led to the adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” We had no idea what apple variety we had found, and this led us on a good adventure of discovery to figure it out. There are over 2,500 varieties of apples, with 100 commercially grown in the United States and 7,500 varieties grown throughout the world. 

In the United States, we are lucky to have apples all year long: apples are shipped here from all over the world. However, there is nothing better for you or your taste buds than apples ripened and picked off your local trees. 

New York produces approximately 10 percent of America’s apple yield; Washington State heads up the nation with approximately 60 percent of our nation’s apple production. After poring through numerous apple tomes and online sources and enjoying a professional consultation with Dr. John M. Aronian III, our resident all-knowing family horticulturist and trans(plant) surgeon, we confirmed that  our tree was a Malus domestica Kidd’s Orange Red—a cultivar of an apple first domesticated in New Zealand. Our Kidd’s Orange Red apples were a forager’s dream, from halfway around the world to our kitchen. 

Finding soil-dusted, misshapen, half-eaten Kidd’s Orange Red apples from a pre-1950s tree was a gift. We’d found certifiable, untouched, organic, and truly “clean” apples to do with as we please and enjoy. I flashed back to when I was stepping up my supermarket food game 10 years ago, caught in the burgeoning tug of war between commercial farmers and country squires. What was once old was new again: organic food, once everyone’s staple, was now expensive. Blending sauce for my infants had me examining myriad apples and feeling conflicted. How could I feed these delicious apples, photogenic but poisoned with insecticides and pesticides and covered in wax, to my babies? From that anxious moment on, I made it my mission to find the healthiest food and cook better. The best nutrition grows the best children.

Setting out to grow a human being requires the highest quality ingredients, but there are so many conflicting theories on “healthy” diets that it can be overwhelming. Many of us have been thwarted by our own upbringing, developing unhealthy eating habits, misled by the food pyramid, and caught up in the never-ending variety of fads and “miracle” foods. It’s tempting to just give up and give in, to eat whatever appears in front of us. Yet science gives us a clear answer—the same answer that works for so many questions about parenting and education issues: homespun is best.

When we create food, tantalizing our senses, igniting our noses with aromas, our eyes with intention, and using our hands as we craft, we are offering so much more than a meal. Preparing food, we are using our cognitive abilities in the kitchen and rewarming innate survival skills that cook up independence and confidence. Moreover, food preparation and presentation are personal, artistic endeavors that bring joy and satisfaction and, for many, are tokens of love. You may scoff over the extra effort it takes to present plates of food that are works of art, just to get children to eat something they’ve never tried before. (How many of us heard, “They’ll eat it or go hungry!” as children?) But it’s said that it takes ten tries before someone can truly say they’ve given a new taste an adequate chance. I personally have anguished over offering the most exciting toothpick for my kids to pluck up a piece of kiwi. When we slice up our Kidd’s Orange Reds to make healthy treats in the dehydrator at home, we are passing down and paying forward our families’ and society’s advancements. Think of processed store-bought grab-and-go junk food as the equivalent of cramming for a quiz: nothing’s going to stick in a healthy and meaningful way. 

You may not happen upon your own private giving tree, but you can grow, forage for, and buy food that is as close to the earth and unprocessed as possible. Our kids are worth sacrificing a little convenience for crockpot consciousness.