Returning from a family vacation last Tuesday, waiting at a traffic light around the corner from our home, I glanced up and noticed many red apples decorating the trees at the edge of a neglected parking lot. This lot belonged to a restaurant that closed several years ago, and the building’s been vacant ever since. Nobody is using that parking lot. I doubt that anyone feels a sense of ownership about those apples. I’m almost certain that nobody would bother spraying pesticides on those trees, which means the apples are organic. FREE ORGANIC APPLES!!
I love saving money, and I love saving food from being wasted. Also, it was a nice day, and we were getting home with time to spare before dinner. As soon as we’d unloaded the car, my eight-year-old Nicholas and I walked over to the parking lot with a couple of bags and started picking apples.
We soon found that most of the apples were out of our reach. This parking lot is wedged up against the base of a hill, with a retaining wall about 4 feet high along one side; the trees are growing in a narrow space above the wall, bordered on the other side by a chain-link fence along the sidewalk of the next street. Although the trees’ branches hang down nearly to the ground level where they’re growing, that means the lowest tips of the branches are 4 feet above the parking lot, so most of the apples were up higher. Scratchy bushes growing between the trees prevented us from climbing into the area above the wall. There were lots of fallen apples on the ground, but most were too yucky. We went around onto the sidewalk but found very few apples growing within reach on that side of the trees–perhaps they’d all been picked by passing pedestrians.
At this point we’d picked about 2 pounds of apples–a decent amount when you’re buying big supermarket apples for fresh eating, but these apples were small (more of the total volume was core, compared to a big apple) and had many damaged areas that were going to need to be trimmed out, and we were planning to cook them in case they weren’t sweet enough to eat raw, so we wanted to be sure of having enough for a pie. After some discussion, we decided to go home and get our small stepladder.
Being able to reach just 3 feet higher vastly increased my picking ability! Nicholas wanted some turns on the ladder, of course, but mostly he held the bag while I picked. We took only the apples that easily separated from the tree when tugged, figuring the others were not ripe yet. We picked apples for nearly an hour. Nobody questioned what we were doing. Of course, if anyone had said, “This is private property. You can’t have our apples!” we would have handed over the apples and apologized.
When we got home, we stashed the apples in a corner of the kitchen floor and got to work on dinner. Later that evening, I wrote a page of Apple Instructions for Nicholas (who was still on summer vacation) to follow while I was at work the next day. He was pleased to see them in the morning. He read over the steps and informed me that he would do everything up to the cutting and trimming; Daddy would do that part and bake some pies. Daniel was agreeable.
Nicholas put the apples in a sinkful of hot water with a little vinegar, scrubbed them with a brush, rinsed them, and piled them in the dish drainer. Daniel made pie crust and cut up enough apples to fill the two pies. I was happy to come home to the smell of baking apple pie, and I understood that trimming just that many apples was enough for Daniel for that day. We enjoyed big slices of pie after dinner! It was at least as tasty as a pie made from supermarket apples.
I spent nearly two hours that evening working on the apples myself. Out of the overall volume of apples, about half the material went into our compost bin: cores, seeds, stems, rotten parts, unappetizing rough brown patches of skin (other than removing these, we did not peel the apples–it’s more work, and the skin has lots of fiber), and everything obviously bug-eaten. There were a few apples that looked okay on the outside but turned out to be brown and slimy all the way through–I washed the knife after cutting into each of those! Most apples had some good parts. Some were really beautiful, and I ate chunks that were very tasty. I sampled a few bits of the less-pretty apples but found that some were sour or woody-textured, problems that are easily solved by cooking. Although throwing away half the volume sounds like we wouldn’t get much food out of a quantity of apples that I easily carried home, I bagged up 6 cups, and there were still lots of apples in the drainer!
Daniel and I worked together to finish the rest of the apple-trimming on Friday. The final total was 22 cups of diced apples–6 cups in the pies and 16 cups in our freezer. We’ll have some more pies, but I’m also planning to make a big pan of apple crisp next time our church provides dinner to the homeless shelter; I want to share the abundance that came my way.
Harvesting food that would otherwise be wasted helps the environment by reducing the resources that go into producing more food and transporting it to you. Especially when the food is growing on its own (nobody had to tend those apple trees this year for them to produce another crop of apples) within walking distance of your home, getting that food is a big improvement over having apples grown even 50 miles away trucked to a store to which you’ll drive even 5 miles to buy them.
Keep an eye out for fruit going unclaimed in your area! Falling Fruit and Neighborhood Fruit can help you find it. If the fruit is growing on private property, either ask permission to pick it or (if there’s nobody around to ask) look for signs that the fruit is unwanted: it’s falling on the ground and not getting cleaned up, and the place has a general air of neglect and/or a For Sale sign. Wash the fruit thoroughly, especially if you’ll be eating it raw.
Foraging for food made us feel like great adventurers, like Penny, who has great advice on foraging, or Nikki, who writes beautifully about the abundance we can find in the world. It was exciting being able to pull pounds and pounds of food out of these trees we’d barely even noticed before. All that trimming was a lot of work, but it was kind of fun digging out the good parts and watching our freezer bags fill with food.