The free snack by the side of the road

Perhaps you’ve noticed something along the roadsides lately. Maybe some of the trees are looking a little..heavy?

apple tree

Can you see it? Look close.

It’s apple season. Like most families, we like to head out to a nearby orchard for a mass apple picking at some point in the fall. Then we make apple cake, apple sauce, and apple pie until we can’t stand the thought of it.

That’s a lie, that never happens. We never get sick of apple pie.

But this year, I’m also trying to do something a little different. The kids and I are working on remembering to try the apples that aren’t pruned, tended, bolstered, and otherwise nurtured along the way. That’s right, we’re trying roadside apples.

I encourage my kids to try wild food whenever we can. Grabbing some huckleberries alongside a trail, rummaging along a hillside for some blackberries, nibbling on a piece of clover…I didn’t see why apples should be any different. So this year–which happens to be a tremendous apple year, in case you hadn’t noticed–we’ve been going on a little roadside apple taste test tour.

I’ve made a few guiding rules: No picking from trees in front of people’s houses–that’s just plain old respect, right there. No picking from trees that seem to have been tended–just because there’s not a house in sight doesn’t mean it’s not someone’s orchard. If a tree looks like it has been pruned in the last ten years or the apples are suspiciously spot-free, we leave them.

Luckily, this is Maine and those first two rules still leave lots and lots of apple trees, so our third rule is: share. Share with the birds, the deer, the other curious foragers. No need to hoard. This is a sampling mission, not a time to stockpile.

Using these guidelines, we’ve been nibbling our way down the roadsides. Wild apples aren’t store apples: each tree is a gamble. Some are wormy, some are too tart, some are oddly flavorless, all of them are kind of funny-looking. But hidden in those bumpy, spotty, weird-looking apples are all sorts of treasures. One tree that we drive by almost daily puts out tiny little golden apples, barely an inch-and-a-half tall, that are bright, complex, and perfectly tart. Another tastes just like the Macouns we get at the local orchard, just smaller and spottier. A third try was disappointingly bland but had a great firm texture, just the ticket for whipping up some apple butter.

Why bother, when there is no shortage of perfect apples in the world? Well, many of these trees are our living history, remnants of an old farm or household orchard, so long gone that no one remembers who they belonged to. Some are wild-sown, the result of birds or deer helping things along, little gifts for all of us. But even better, now all these trees have moved beyond simply being background scenery. We know them in a way we didn’t before; they’ve become our family friends. We can look for them year after year, watching the changes in production and anticipating our favorites.

So, yes, hit the orchards for the annual picking frenzy. But next time your kids are whining about being hungry, pull over to the side of the road and let them pick an apple. You never know what you might find.

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.