A tribute to Washington state’s appley greatness.

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There’s a way to feed an apple to a horse: Keep your hand as flat as you can, making it more of a tray, while proffering the fruit. If you drop the apple, that’s preferable to maybe losing a finger, and the horse definitely will not care. There’s also a way to feed an apple to a shy, crazy-eyed mule: Just toss it, and give it some distance, or else a certain horse will eat that plus its own apple, too.

The horse and the mule probably have names, but no one’s ever thought to ask. Every spring, out in the countryside past Yakima in Eastern Washington, my dad’s cousin Gene brings them up the road from his place to my grandma’s farm. All summer and into the fall, the horse and the mule have the enviable job of standing around in the quiet sunshine eating, mowing down the tall grass in the pasture next to the house. They aren’t very methodical about it, but they are thorough, applying themselves steadily to their work unless someone approaches the fence, offering the possibility of something more interesting to eat — then they’ll come to see, and the horse will let you scratch between his ears, which move inquisitively before he loses interest and returns to mowing.

The horse looks just like a horse should: rich, dark brown, with an almost-diamond-shaped splotch of white on his forehead. The mule, mottled black and white and gray with a scraggly cream-colored mane, hangs back, always a little wild-eyed, possibly wanting to be scratched between the ears but too mistrustful of humanity to come anywhere near close enough.

In the springtime, the trees in the apple orchard across the road bloom madly, as they do all across the valley where Washington’s famous crop is grown. If you visit at the right time, it’s row after row, acre after acre, mile after mile of trees like fluffy dreams, the blossoms the promise of the apples to be.

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Toward fall, when the grass in the pasture gets short, it seems nice to go pick up a few of the apples that have fallen in the orchard across the road to give them to the horse and the mule, who are undiscriminating when it comes to bruised or even rotting fruit. I believe that section of the trees is devoted to Fuji apples, a variety that balances beautifully between tart and sweet, maybe the best kind, to my mind, for a snack. When I eat one bought in Seattle, I always think it’s possible it came from that orchard.

Horse, at front left; mule, hanging back as usual. (Bethany Jean Clement / The Seattle Times)
Horse, at front left; mule, hanging back as usual. (Bethany Jean Clement / The Seattle Times)

If you give a horse and a mule apples when they’ve eaten a lot of grass all summer, they’re as happy about it as they can be. Then when they see you, the horse will come right to the fence, with alacrity, and maybe stamp his feet; the mule will edge closer than ever before. They’ll look at you searchingly, like you might be a big apple on legs yourself.

Some years back, we were over there visiting as fall was getting under way, and some gleaned apples from across the road had already been conveyed. I was outside when something astonishing happened. Thump-thump, thump-THUMP, THUMP-thump, I heard — the unmistakable sound of hooves forcefully hitting turf. The horse, after summers upon summers of being a placid eating-machine, had jumped the fence and was standing, looking pretty surprised himself, in the middle of the lawn. I ran and grabbed a broom and ran back and waved it, probably shouting “Yaw!” or something else I’d heard my grandma say, trying to herd the horse back from whence he came. He looked at me for a second, clearly thinking “As if!!!” and then ran full-speed across the lawn, leaving impressively deep, hoof-shaped divots. He jumped another, lower fence, then bounded across the road into the orchard and began immediately, calmly eating apples right off a tree. His aspect of complete innocence seemed contrived, as if he were thinking, “Mission accomplished! Now just act normal, no problem.”

The horse clearly wasn’t going far — so many apples! Back in the pasture, the mule stood visibly anxious at this turn of events, unable to summon the courage to follow but bereft, staring in the direction of the horse’s path to appley freedom.

I went inside and called Gene and explained the situation. He reckoned, reassuringly laconic, that he’d come pretty soon. And so, after a while, he did, walking in no kind of rush up the road, carrying a bucket of grain and a rope.

The second amazing thing that happened that day was that Gene went not into the orchard but into the pasture, shaking the bucket, and the mule came directly to him and commenced eating out of it. Rope looped around neck, the mule was led away, as docile as can be, and when the horse in the orchard heard his friend’s hooves clip-clopping away down the road, he stopped eating apples and emerged right away to follow. It was about time, Gene said, for them to come home anyway. I didn’t tell him we’d been feeding them apples.

 

Joan’s Apple Crisp

Serves four

This version of an old-school classic comes from an index card in my mom’s recipe box. She has no idea where she originally got it. It’s a million times quicker and easier than pie, but gives you some of that same happy apple-pie feeling. Tarter apples might be better, but that’s up to you; a mandoline, set to the thickest slice, is your friend for dealing with them. My mom now adds candied ginger bits to the apples to fancy it up, but I like it without (sorry, Mom!). The lemon juice and zest arguably add a little citrusy depth, but the crisp is still really good without it. Definitely serve warm, with vanilla ice cream.

 

2 cups apples, peeled and sliced

1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)

1 tablespoon lemon zest (optional)

⅓ cup brown sugar

¼ cup flour

¼ cup oatmeal

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

3 tablespoons butter

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Toss the apple slices with the lemon juice and zest, if you like. Layer the apple slices in a lightly buttered pie plate. Combine the rest of the ingredients — use a couple butter knives to cut the butter into the dry mixture — until crumbly-textured, and spread it over the top of the apples, pressing a little to make a nice layer. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, and serve warm (though it’s good cold for breakfast, too).