Blood, Phlegm & Bile:
Parenting with Humor

Cider like gardening, grows more intoxicating with age

People who know how immature I am will find it hard to believe, but I’m pushing 50. I’m really just in my early to mid to late 40s, but there’s no denying the passage of time. I’m even starting to think that some of the dreams of my youth— winning the Tour de France, becoming a Supreme Court justice—may actually never happen.

This is why I love gardening. My chances of space travel may be di- minishing, but in the garden I’m in my prime. Gardening is an old person’s game, and in that arena I’m still an upstart, a young Turk,

a whippersnapper! Even Thomas Jefferson said that “tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Gardening gives confidence to those of us no longer in the 18–24 cohort that dominates our culture. We may not feel too comfortable busting a move in a dance club or playing beach volleyball in a Speedo, but we can swagger into any grocery store, even the fanciest fine food market, feeling absolutely certain that we can grow a better tomato than any they sell.

The cocky feeling of satisfaction that gardeners have as we strut through the produce section is one of the great joys of our hobby. Most of us don’t often feel this way in a store. When I’m buying a computer or a sofa, I rarely think to myself, “Oh, come on, I can make one better than that.”

But what about when I’m buying something to drink?

This year, I decided to find out, by making hard apple cider. With a gallon of juice, a packet of yeast and four weeks to go before Thanksgiving, I set off on a fermentation adventure.

Why make cider, you ask? Why not brew beer like a normal person? For one thing, I have a dozen young apple trees growing in my yard that, in a few years, will start making way more apples than we need to keep the doctors away. We can’t just let them go to waste! And they’re not your typical dessert apples meant to be eaten. I planted heirloom apples of various types, from sweet to tart, and I’m growing more from seed. I chose them after careful research, using a sophisticated algorithm that considered a wide range of criteria, from which varieties Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello to which varieties happened to be cheapest at Costco.

These obscure fruits will be much more interesting to eat than Golden Delicious and Gala, and they will blend into a much more complex cider than sweet apples from the store ever could. As with vegetable gardening, many of the unique and delicious heirloom varieties have disappeared from stores, so you have to grow them yourself. A little backyard orchard is a small but important way for anyone to help preserve the vanishing genetic diversity of the apple. To the untrained eye, I’m making homemade hooch, but in fact, I’m single-handedly saving the world’s biodiversity.

I never knew how varied apples could be until I spent a couple years in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the modern apple’s ancestral home. (The city’s name even means “Father of Apples”!) Like every American kid, I grew up eating tough-skinned, mealy Red Delicious apples and not really liking them. But in Kazakhstan, you can hike though whole forests of wild apple trees, each one producing a wildly different fruit. And as you stroll through the bazaars, sellers slice off free samples from beautiful, crisp apples weighing a kilogram each. Hav- ing grown up in a country where the typical grocery store carries 40 brands of basically identical ketchup but only about four varieties of apple, I had to go halfway around the world to discover the incredi- ble variety of this common fruit.

Like their wild cousins, trees grown from seed are not clones of the parent, so their apples will likely be tart, inedible “spitters.” But they’re fine for drinking, especially after your yeasty friends have mellowed them out for a few months.

See, my interest in cider is not about the alcohol. It’s about the crisp mouthfeel, the light effervescence, the subtle apple flavor, no longer overpowered by sweetness. To some, this protesting too much in favor of hard cider might seem like claiming to read Playboy for the articles. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Hard cider is wonderfully refreshing. It used to be the most popular recreational beverage in America, but it virtually disappeared in the early 20th century. It’s just starting to make a comeback now, thanks to the foodie homesteader movement.

The fledgling cider renaissance is about at the stage where home- brewing beer was a couple decades ago. In those simpler times, the only alternative to watery, mass-produced domestic beer was slightly less watery, mass-produced imports, and Heineken seemed exotic and good by comparison. People started homebrewing because it was the only way to get decent beer.

Then the best homebrewers turned pro and launched the craft beer revolution. Now, aspiring drink-it-yourselfers may feel left behind. I’m certain I could never brew anything as good as Dale’s Pale Ale or Ranger IPA, so why even try?

Unlike beer, cider still appeals to the gardener’s ambition to surpass store-bought products. I can’t compete with craft brewers, especially here in the Napa Valley of beer. But good local hard cider is just becoming available. We’re still on the frontier.

Cider-making has a synergy with gardening that appeals to me. Not many homebrewers grow their own barley, although some are planting hops rhizomes nowadays. But cider can be pure DIY magic, transforming backyard food into a bubbly adult beverage. The fizziness adds something special to the creative satisfaction, a real feeling of alchemy.

How is my experiment going? I couldn’t wait for the apples from my own trees, so I used organic store-bought apple juice. My kids were appalled that I would spoil a whole gallon of perfectly good apple juice, but I explained how this experiment was essential to advancing scientific knowledge. This satisfied them, and they like learning about chemistry and biology by observing the yeast and watching the carbon dioxide bubble through the airlock on the jug.

Like all good parents, I am actively supplementing my children’s education—by having them help me make alcoholic beverages. Hey, before you judge me, ask yourself this: Does your 8-year-old know what specific gravity is?

According to our Thanksgiving guests, the first batch wasn’t bad: dry, crisp and bubbly, but still just an early effort that will improve as it ages. And as I learn more about the art and science of blending apples with various sugar, acid and tannin levels, I’m sure my future batches will improve as I age. Entering this new world makes me feel like a kid again. With all the variables, fermenting cider is at least as complex as making wine. It’s easy enough to get started. But learning the techniques, growing the apples and waiting for them to ferment will be a long journey.

Fortunately, gardeners are used to delayed gratification. We can en- dure months just to enjoy a single parsnip. This has prepared me to wait the several years for my apple trees to bear fruit and the several months for my cider to age and mellow. I’ll just be aging and mel- lowing right along with it.

In most ways, we want time to slow down. Our lives are hurtling by, and time seems to pass ever faster as we get older. Gardening is an effective antidote to this existential dread. On the first warm days of spring, our excitement about summer is dampened by the knowledge that it’s going to go by way too fast. Gardeners have per- spective on this feeling—we don’t want summer to end, but we take solace in knowing that when it does, at least our carrots and pump- kins will finally be ready.

Growing fruit takes this discipline to a whole new level. I doubt there are many other fortysomethings out there who find themselves think- ing, “Man, I can’t wait for the next five years to pass.” But the giddy anticipation of waiting for the big backyard apple harvests makes the approach of the big 5-0 seem a bit less like a yawning abyss.

In the unlikely event that I never become the first Tour de France champion to serve on the Supreme Court, it’s comforting to kno that my best days as a gardener, orchardist and cider maker are stil ahead of me.

I’ll have to be careful, though, if this hobby proves as obsessive as gardening. According to my cursory research, I can only make 20 gallons a year for my personal consumption without running afou of federal liquor laws. I’m not saying I plan to drink 200 gallons o homemade hard cider next year, necessarily. It’s just nice to know that I could.

© 2012 John Hershey

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). He writes a syndicated biweekly humor column about parenting and family life.. His columns have been published or accepted for publication on websites and in magazines around the world, from Maine to Oregon, Colorado down to Texas, and down under in Australia.

Blood, Phlegm & Bile: Parenting with Humor appears monthly on But, why the gross title? Well, for one thing these are three substances with which every parent becomes quite familiar. They were also called the "humors" by medieval scientists who believed that the proportion of these bodily fluids determined a person's health and temperament. So it's a pun! A pun requiring a lengthy explanation, but a pun nonetheless. E-Mail

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