On an autumn afternoon a few years ago, I found myself sitting in an advertising agency conference room with a group of moms discussing applesauce for a focus group. We weren’t supposed to know we were talking about applesauce, but the young, goateed advertising executive leading the discussion kept asking questions like, “So, when you’re looking for healthy foods to put in your kid’s lunch, do you ever consider something like…applesauce?”
Applesauce was more than a nutritious snack in my family, and when the adman asked what brand of applesauce we ate as children, I didn’t think Musselman’s. I thought instead of warm summer mornings spent on my hands and knees on the dewy ground, retrieving fallen apples. I didn’t grow up on a farm or near an orchard. We didn’t even have an apple tree, but our neighbor Mrs. Johnson did. A widow with no children, Mrs. Johnson could use only so many apples, so she asked if our family would like some. With five children to feed, my mom didn’t hesitate to say yes. Come August, when the apples were ripe, one of us would be sent out first thing after breakfast to gather whatever fruit had dropped, overnight, onto the mossy earth. It didn’t matter if the apples were bruised, or even half-eaten by birds or worms: Mom would cut away the spoiled parts, core and slice what was left and throw it in the big stew pot to boil and soften. No one seems quite sure what type apples this tree produced—it had been grafted from four different varieties—but they weren’t apples you’d eat by hand. Grass-green skin covered a firm fruit that was extremely tart. Serviceable for cobblers and crisps, they were not so good for pies but perfect for applesauce. My mother invested in a food grinder—a stainless-steel contraption that was hand-operated. The softened apple slices were dumped into the grinder and then smushed into sauce. My brother got the chore of grinding, which, he was assured, would build muscles. With a little cinnamon, sugar and lemon, the greenish pulpy mass was transformed into something that might not look pretty but spoiled all of us for life for pale, yellow, store-brought applesauce. I’m not sure how much applesauce we produced each autumn, but my mother would freeze it in unused milk cartons brought home from a dairy that was going out of business. The cartons filled the freezer and lasted all winter.
Mrs. Johnson died several years ago, but the new neighbor still allows my parents to help themselves to the fruit. My brother and sisters and I are no longer there to gather or grind, so my father has taken over. Slim, as he’s known to his 14 grandchildren, added vanilla to the recipe and managed to improve what we thought was perfection. Cartons of applesauce still line the freezer, and no visit to Nana and Slim’s is complete without a dish of applesauce or a carton to take home. No one has ever tested our family’s applesauce on a focus group. No one ever will. Ad agencies are always looking for ways to suspend a halo of family values over a product. And with research, high-powered creativity and advertising savvy, they can manage to create images that are warm and fuzzy—like the feel of moist soil under my knees on summer mornings as I collected apples.