With a bag full of apples, I waded through throngs of kids into Thomson Elementary School. My friend Shayna Tivona—Ms. Tivona to her 17 pre-K students—had invited me to take a break from my work on a small Pennsylvania farm and visit her class for their unit on trees.
The three-, four- and five-year-olds had already come up with some excellent questions: What is a seed? How do trees grow up? What food comes from trees?
Students were eager to talk to “Farmer Julia,” telling me about trees they had seen and fruits they had eaten. I passed around four different apple varieties and students shared observations as they held, shook and sniffed the fruit.
Mutsu apples, the students observed, were “big” and “green,” while the stayman winesap apples I brought were “smaller” and “red and brown,” with “tiny dots” on them. The goldrush and the rusty coat apples were both deemed “rough” on the outside.
At the farmers markets where I work, customers regularly ask for the “best” apples, which I always tell them is “a very personal question.” “What’s your dream apple?” I ask. “Sweet or tart? Crispy? Crunchy? Juicy? Small or large?”
In our classroom taste-test, though, students immediately understood the complexities of the apples’ tastes and textures. A vote revealed that most students preferred the mutsu apple.
Mutsu apples, also called crispins, are a relative of the golden delicious variety and originally come from Japan. They can grow shockingly large and near-perfectly round. Under their bright green skin is a crisp and sweet apple that’s good for snacking and sharing.
I knew the stayman winesap apple wouldn’t win the kids over. Known for their tart flesh, the red-brown staymans are dense apples that make excellent pie and sauce. But after the weather gets cold, staymans get sweeter and can be a good eating apple, too.
Goldrush and rusty coat apples are heirloom varieties (yup—heirloom isn’t just a classification for tomatoes!). As the name suggests, the rusty coats have a rough skin covering a mild, dense flesh. Goldrush—my personal favorite—is a late-producing heirloom apple with a serious crunch and a sweet-meets-tart taste. These apples are both considered “keeping apples” because they can last for months in a cool, dry place. This quality made them a hot commodity in the pre-refrigeration era, when fruit and vegetables were scarce in the winter.
One of my favorite questions on the wall of Ms. Tivona’s classroom was “How do we make applesauce?” An apple-picking birthday party for my boyfriend’s three-year-old niece recently left me with a big bag of assorted apples and no plan. Luckily, I had plenty of jars and a couple of free hours.
Applesauce is easy like that. You can decide to make it on a whim and have something delicious before you know it. The basic ingredients—apples, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon—may already be in your house.
Plus, canned applesauce makes a perfect holiday gift. I like to bring jars of it to friends’ homes when I’m invited over for Chanukah. It’s better than a bottle of wine; it’s a homemade gift hosts can serve and enjoy that very night.