10 Oct Apple Time in Coal Country

Jill and I just spent a few days in Pennsylvania’s coal country, which we enjoy visiting because it is not a popular tourist destination. For example: we followed tantalizing signs to a site called The Gallitzin Tunnels, only to discover that it is an overlook that allowed us to peer down at two railroad tunnels — the oldest railway tunnels in the state.  Had we been able to walk through a tunnel, I might have been impressed. But, no, you look over a fence into a ravine and there they are, a hundred yards away: two darkened entrances that look like any other entrances to a vehicular tunnel you might have seen.

No matter.  We were interested in the scenery, not the historic sights. Central PA is hill country, towns tucked into steep slopes with 50-mile views. The trees were already burnished with autumn colors, the sky was cloudless, and the temps topped out at 70.  We were driving with the dogs because this was our dog vacation. Jill insists that we treat them to a trip every so often. Our Basset and pit bull are high maintenance but they enjoy being with, so it’s hard to begrudge them the pleasure. Every time we get out of the car, the pit clambers into the front seat and the Basset howls. Wide-eyed with longing and anticipation, they watch us for the next move: where we going? Is there food? Are there dogs or children to bark at? Trees to pee on?  Trails to sniff?

We visited one of our favorite PA places: Bellefonte, a little town with a stunning array of grand Victorian houses.  Really, you won’t find better Victorian houses anywhere in Pennsylvania. We have our eye on one in particular. If we were rich and living a hundred-some years ago, we’d make it our summer home. It’s a huge second-empire Italianate manse on a hill. Two years ago it was gutted by a fire. Now a developer is brining it back, but, at this point, it remains an imposing shell.

Bellefonte is just ten miles north of State College, by the way, and State College is where you can find one of the best pizza places west of New Jersey: Faccia Luna.  It’s seriously good pizza done New York style in a coal-fired oven. The places is wildly, deservedly popular.

Before leaving coal country, we picked a bushel of apples from a tree behind the cottage we were renting. We’re not sure what kind of apples these are but they’re wonderfully tart and sweet and may be related to jonathans.  You probably know that there were once scores of apple varieties in the U.S.A.  The rise of  super market chains in the 1960s-70s reduced apple varieties to a handful, the most prevalent of which is the Red Delicious — which grow big, are hard to bruise, and are one of the most insipid fruits ever manufactured.

Recent decades have seen an increase in the popularity of the old varieties, promoted by a  movement to revive these heirloom strains.  At our own farmers’ market in Baltimore we can find about twenty kinds of apples with names like Abram, Aunt Rachel, Blacktwig, Bunkum, Carolina Red June, and so on. Our bushel of apples may be one of those. Frieda, our basset hound, loves apples so, every time we turned around, she sneaked off, trotting down the hill to the apple tree. The grass was littered with apples. She’d eat 6-10 apples at a time if we didn’t stop her.  Here’s a YouTube video of Frieda devouring one.

Side note to dog lovers: some dog aficionados will tell you not to feed your dog a whole apple because the seeds contain cyanide. Apple seeds actually contain amigdalin, a cyanide compound. However, to die from eating apple seeds, you’d need to eat a lot of them. How many? Let’s say a hundred. Maybe two hundred? How many apples is that? Second, you’d have to chew the seeds a good deal to release the trace amount of poison, then let that sit in your stomach a while so that you could absorb it.  Unchewed seeds will not break down in your stomach. In other words, your dog is not going to die from eating apple seeds because, if your dog is like our dog, she eats fast, swallows without chewing much — and certainly doesn’t chew enough to crack the seeds — and then poops it out soon after.

On our way home, Jill and I stopped at a country flea market. There’s nothing we like more than a good flea market. By “good,” I mean lots of cool old stuff for sale cheap. We found a big vintage ceramic bowl that completed a set we have (at $12, it was our splurge), an old tape measure ($1), a 45-year-old “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” comic book ($1), two German kitchen knives ($4), a circa-1950 children’s puzzle of the U.S.A (lovely and frameable but an indulgence at $5)., a bunch of old picture frames ($2 a piece), and several 78 RPM records albums (25 cents a piece), the best of which is a circa-1955 “Christmas Songs by Frank Sinatra.” (Yes, we have a turn table that can play 78s.)

Only when we got back to Baltimore did we realize that we had picked more than a bushel of apples. Maybe two bushels. More apples that even serious apple lovers like us can eat. We made a pot of apple sauce for starters. We’ll have to dream up all kinds of autumnal treats for the rest, though I promise we will not hand them out for Halloween. I always hated that, getting an apple at someone’s door instead of candy on the one night of the year when candy is both king and queen.