Apple Butter

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I didn’t go to the Hillcrest Farmers’ Market this morning with the intention of buying apples to make apple butter. I was actually on a futile hunt for the elusive kouign amann pastry made by Mylo Coffee Company. (They sold out long before I got there.) But a trip to a farmers’ market, even in January, can rearrange a cook’s schedule in good and unexpected ways.

Kai, my Husky sidekick, and I were shopping the homegrown and the handmade on tables set up along the edge of a sidewalk in a Little Rock neighborhood known for its bohemian flair. Correction: I shopped. Kai bucked, lunged, raced, pulled, yanked, leaped, and charged. I was grateful for the young man who squatted to scratch Kai’s ears while I attempted to buy a couple of molasses cookies and a pistachio meringue, my consolation prizes from the depleted stock of the bakers who make the kouign amann. Kai was transfixed long enough for me to hand over a few dollars without endangering any trays of food. I was very sorry to have twice tested the patience of a yellow Labrador retriever, a market stall canine, who seethed under his owner’s caution to let Kai pass without challenge as Kai growled insults in doggie disdain. By the time we reached the last table in the row, my shopping bag held honey-wheat bread, nuts, a sleeve of beefy dog treats, and the aforementioned sweets. I’d already decided I’d never take Kai to another outdoor market, and I was ready to go home. But that last table held piles of shiny, curiously dark apples, their purply-red skins distinctive to eyes used to mass-market Red Delicious. I was intrigued by their hue and stopped to take a closer look. 

A man smiled a greeting from behind the folding table. I read his sign. These are Arkansas Blacks? I asked. I’ve heard of them, read about their legendary flavor, but never seen any. “Yes,” he said proudly. I admired their beauty.

The apple seller shook his head ruefully at the still-voluminous piles of fruit between us. “If I don’t sell these today,” he said, “we’ll have to start turning them into product.” I don’t know a lot about apples, but I know Arkansas Blacks are special and rare. Would they make good apple butter? I asked. “Oh, yes,” the man said dreamily, his sonorous voice calling to mind actor James Earl Jones, but with an accent my ears couldn’t discern. I’ve heard many homilies spoken by Nigerian priests at my Catholic church. His tone sounded similar. Was he from Nigeria, maybe?

My question went unspoken, though, because the apple seller wanted to know something.

“Ma’am, if I may ask,” he intoned politely, “why do you have a dog?”

At that moment, the dog in question was practically levitating at the end of his leash in his desire to run, to ravage the pasture-raised pork display, to pick a fight with the yellow Lab. I struggled to keep my arm, the one attached to his leash, in its socket. Also on my to-do list: renting a Rug Doctor to fix what a bucket of hot, soapy water couldn’t after Kai’s epic gastrointestinal distress one night this week. My car is always lined in Husky fur. I have to grow next summer’s basil and rosemary in elevated pots, or at least in pots taller than Kai can mark with pee. Kai howls to go outside at 3 a.m. lately, rousing my husband from his sleep, and my cat has had a nervous breakdown.

I was stumped. Why do I have a dog (or three)? Particularly this one, whose presence has upended our entire household over the last few months. He needed a home, I finally said. I didn’t tell him that any creature who has spent most of a year tied to a tree, being starved, deserves rescue and a soft bed for life, not to mention beefy dog treats. Kai loves me, I should have said. Most of the time, I love him. Sometimes that has to be enough.

The apple seller laughed and nodded, coming around the table to add the handles of his bag to the others on my outstretched fingers. Kai’s leash was wound around my other hand, and I needed help to gather my own purchases. Kai and I lurched down the street toward the car. I opened the passenger door, and the Husky leapt in and sat behind the steering wheel, looking at me expectantly, a fresh cloud of downy fur floating over the upholstery. Sighing, I shooed him over and got in. He leaned back in the passenger seat, a contented look on his face. He likes the passenger seat to recline at a certain angle, so I keep it just the way he likes it. I swear he smiled.

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