We have this book, The Important Book. It's a slim little volume, with very modern (for 1949) illustrations, written by one Margaret Wise Brown. If her name rings a bell, it's likely because she wrote the most widely-read children's book ever. And if The Important Book never made Goodnight Moon's splash, it's only because it lacks the charm of a going-to-bed bunny.
Actually, it also lacks narrative. And plot. And characters. And dialogue. Bear with me.
What The Important Book has is the gift of the pause. Wise Brown assembles this cast of everyday backdrops—shoes, wind, daisies, snow—and stops where others would walk right on by. She offers up a quirky inventory of each thing's essential parts, and so invites us to do the same.
The important thing about a spoon is that you eat with it. It's like a little shovel. You hold it in your hand, you can put it in your mouth, it isn't flat, it's hollow, and it spoons things up. But the important thing about a spoon is that you eat with it.
It's a small collection of odes to the ordinary, Consider the Oyster for the preschool set.
I've been thinking on this business of Important Things as we wrap up Halloween, and barrel into the true holidays. Halloween happened.
Of course it did.
I just wasn't sure that it would. Do you ever have those holidays?
We don't do up Halloween in a big way. No haunted garages, no four-foot fake spiders, no styrofoam graveyards on the front lawn. Just the usual, which can resemble the bare minimum: costumes, pumpkins, candy, the odd craft, the end.
But October went by in a blur of colds, and by last week we'd yet to bring up the Halloween books. We'd yet to make the easy-peasy paper towel ghosts we've made for years, and we never did get out our little rubber bat stamp, and were just nailing down the last costume requests, with making and hemming still yet to do. But the important thing, about October, was the tending and healing.
And that's when I remembered the important thing about traditions, that they're only as good as the happy they bring. And sometimes that looks like repeating what was. And sometimes that looks like forgetting all that. (And sometimes that looks like an orange-o-lantern, invented by a boy who finally succumbed to his sister's cold, and feared he might miss the whole holiday.)
And you know what? We snuck in a screening of The Great Pumpkin after school, Friday, and giggled again over Charlie's poor holey ghost. And the fifth graders got their pretzel ghosts. And if we didn't do spooky paper towels, we did discover Perler bead pumpkins. And ad hoc'd a flock (fleet? brood? colony!) of googley-eyed bats.
(And surely the Important Thing about today is that I now know these animal groupings. A romp of otters? A shrewdness of apes? A scurry of squirrels? Hot dog.)
And Waldo's shirt sleeves got shortened, and Darth Vader made the parade, and the princess got her gown, though I had a little trouble with the scissors. (The important thing about a princess dress, as it happens, is that it's pink, and it twirls, and it's done by Halloween.)
And we did get those pumpkins, eventually. Halloween morning. From the pastoral aisles of the supermarket. "Heritage squash", actually, according to the sign, since the ordinary carving variety were all sold out. But it took us three stores to establish this fact, which brought a bit of the pumpkin patch hunt to it all. And when we carved them Halloween afternoon, I couldn't help but notice it all seemed more inspiration than procrastination. Halloween is, after all, one of those terminally late holidays, designed to drag children to the end of their patience and back. Wiling away a few hours elbow-deep in goop was not a bad thing at all. Maybe we'll wait on purpose, next year. And maybe we won't. The important thing is the possibility.
The important thing about an apple is that it is round. It is red. You bite it, and it is white inside, and the juice splashes in your face, and it tastes like an apple, and it falls off a tree. But the important thing about an apple is that it is round.
Now here is where Margaret and I part ways, though were she here to try it, I'm all but certain she'd agree: the important thing about apples is in fact the roasting. They can be stewed into a sauce, blush pink and served warm. They can be baked under a blanket of oats, butter and sugar, in which case they are called a crisp, and also delicious. They can be dipped into caramel, pretty much endlessly. They can be eaten out of hand, even by a three-year-old.
They can even be picked from an orchard in early October, on a whim of a Sunday afternoon. The bags fill quickly, and the gratification is instant, and sixty pounds go down in half as many minutes. But grocery store apples are just as fine, here. The important thing is the roasting.
I've roasted every vegetable under the sun. And I've eaten apples every way I know how. From where I sit now, I cannot quite figure out how I never thought to combine those two sentences. I could wallow. Or I could just thank Ashley. Thank you, Ashley.
Oh, heck. That won't do.
When writing thank you notes, my mother always taught me, one ought to be specific. Let's try this again:
Thank you, Ashley, for this exquisite little intersection of apples, ease and scrumptiousness. All fall, I'd imagined some way with cooked apples that brought out all the best bits, and left all the rest. I love a good pie as much as the next girl, but wanted more options without crust or crumb. I wanted the ease of apple sauce (but not the mush), the hands-off of baked apples (but not the knife-and-fork acrobatics), the caramelized swoon of sautéed apples (but not the stoveside babysitting). I wanted, in short, the apple impossible. You delivered, and then some. Home run, this one.
Just as it does with any vegetable, roasting intensifies apples' everything—their fragrance, their sweetness, their tartness, their appeal. Roasted apples are apples, amplified.
Brassy on the edges, melting within, they somehow still manage to hold their shape. There's a slip of butter and dark brown sugar, just enough to varnish the works, not so much to banish them to dessert territory. Indeed, I love these best as a slam-dunk at dinner, a sweet-tart side to all manner of savory. They are dashing alongside sausages or ham (or, for that matter, any porky thing), or double-stuffed tucked delicately into a crèpe, or anywhere applesauce might ordinarily travel. (Potato latkes, I'm looking at you.) It beats a bowl of peas, any day. And I happen to love a bowl of peas.
Not that they aren't outrageous with a scoop of ice cream. Somehow, suddenly, they are Tarte Tatin. Minus the Tarte. And minus the work. It is important that you try them this way, also.
Also, that they fill your home with the scent of six just-baked pies.
Also, that they are the work of five minutes. (Plus one deep-breathing, foot-tapping, hurry-up-and-wait hour).
Also, that I think we've a new fall tradition.
But the important thing about anything is the beginning. Is your oven pre-heating? Peeler? Pan? Apples? Go!
(Cardamom) Roasted Apples
adapted from Ashley Rodriguez, Not Without Salt
Cardamom snuck into my version, as tends to happen in my kitchen, edging out the original vanilla bean. The lesser amounts of spice will be mere background notes, complementing the apples but not announcing themselves. My children think they don't like spice in their apples, but gobbled these up with half-teaspoons of both. The greater amounts will be more pronounced, fragrant and flattering without overwhelming.
We used a combination of Jonathan and Golden Delicious, both of which held their shape beautifully.
12 small-medium apples (3 pounds, or 5 cups), peeled and cut into 1” chunks
1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2-1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom (optional)
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons salted butter
Pre-heat oven to 400*.
Place peeled, cut apples in a roasting pan. Toss with brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon (if using). Dot with butter. Roast 50-60 minutes, tossing gently every 20 minutes are so, until apples are tender, golden at the edges, and butter and brown sugar are beginning to caramelize. Eat immediately, alongside savory fare, or topped with ice cream, or all by its glorious lonesome, standing stoveside.