As the nights grew colder when we were young, and the days crisp and clear, we picked apples.

Sometimes we got them off trees in the field or from a willing neighbor’s yard. Often we’d head to the apple orchards to collect ‘drops’ as they called those that had fallen off the trees and were slightly bruised.

Fall in central Maine some 50 years ago meant coming home after school to apple pie, applesauce cake or apple crisp, straight out of my mother’s oven.

There was nothing like the scent of cooking apples wafting through the house on a chilly day. Sometimes my father, in an eager desire to have something hot and sweet, would core a few apples, spoon some sugar in the center, drop them in a buttered pan and bake them to perfection. Ah, the aroma.

That was back when buying desserts from a grocery store was unheard of in our family. I’d pine for the coconut marshmallow snowballs, devil dogs and creme pastry rolls my classmates in elementary school would find in their lunch boxes, while I had only home-baked molasses or sugar cookies, or, alas, an apple.

Sometimes we’d swap desserts. That was a particularly lucky day.

My friend Rosemarie, who lived in a gray house across from North Elementary School in Skowhegan, had the best desserts. One day she split her pink snowball with me. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

It was only as I grew older that I began to appreciate the fact that most of what we ate as children was home-cooked.

Store-bought desserts lost their luster and tasted more like wax or plastic than the delicious pastries, cakes, pies and breads my mother baked with ingenuity and love.

When I was very young, a man delivered milk from a dairy to our doorstep. We also had a “bread man” who delivered fresh loaves, but I was much enamored of the Wonder Bread advertised on television as soft, airy and white as snow.

In college I took a nutrition class from a French professor who was about 90 but looked 60. I felt such gratitude for my mother and grandmother, who taught us to cook and bake. Now I regard a slice of store-bought white bread as bland, tasteless and having no nutritional value.

To this day I know people who never learned to cook and see it as an inconvenient chore or a frightening challenge — people my age who would rather buy a sandwich off a shelf than spend the time assembling all the pieces necessary to make a good one.

When they were children their mothers bought cake and frosting mixes rather than take the time to bake a cake from scratch. That was another thing I was mesmerized by early on — television commercials touting women in aprons, stirring chocolate cake batter in which they had tossed a couple of eggs, some oil and powdered cake mix, straight out of a box. I yearned to do that, too, and talked my mother into buying a cake mix, only to be utterly disappointed when the cake tasted like cleaning fluid and the frosting even worse.

But back to apples. As children, we’d roam the countryside in the fall and pluck and eat apples from any and all trees we were fortunate enough to discover, munching around the brown spots and worm holes without a worry in the world about either. Apples were our autumn windfall, having foraged all summer for wild berries, rhubarb and vegetables from my father’s garden. We were delighted with all things growing outside and edible.

In our house, we kept bushels of winter apples in a room off the north side of the kitchen we called the “back room.” It was cool and my grandmother and mother would go there for apples to bake pies and other desserts. When the snow fell and the wind howled, we could go out to the back room, pluck an apple from a basket and eat it just as it was.

With all the manufactured, pre-packaged, frozen and dried foods we find in the store, it’s awfully nice to be able to grow the foods we love in summer, harvest produce in the fall and preserve it for the long, cold months ahead.

And thank God for the apples — those fruits of the earth that afford us culinary delights, sustenance and sweet memories, all wrapped into one. In the dead of winter, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to

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