Last weekend's fat harvest moon flipped a switch, and all of a sudden, it's fall. Tomatoes still shine in the garden, but now's the time to gorge on (or can) what's ripe, and accept that what's green now will still be green at Thanksgiving. At the farmers' market, grapes, figs, pomegranates, and winter squash are muscling out the last peaches and melons of the season.
If you're a Northeast transplant like me, you can't cross off the first week in October without craving the first bite of a snappy fresh apple, all crunch and tang. And any apple is better when you've picked it yourself right off the tree, blue sky painted between the branches and the promise of hot cider and fresh cider doughnuts to come.
As a kid, every autumn held a sunny October weekend where my mom would toss my sisters and I into the back of the Volvo (ah, the jouncing-around, sister-jabbing joys of the pre-carseat era!) and head out to the country to go apple picking. This was the Garden State in the 70s, and there was still a lot of working farmland around. Even my hometown, an otherwise drab suburb whose last exciting moment happened in 1780, had a small farm smack in the middle of it, right across the street from my elementary school.
It didn't take long to shake loose from the strip malls and find a place where we could run through the trees, getting stung by yellowjackets drunk on fermenting fallen fruit, and filling bag after bag with Winesaps and Macouns. Always next to the dusty parking lot was a little farm market selling cloudy, fresh-pressed apple cider, boxed apple pies and best of all, cider doughnuts. They were popped fresh out of a greasy, batter-spattered contraption that moved rings of batter along a conveyor belt of bubbling oil, flipping, frying, and finally spitting them down a chute to be sugared and sold.
What's a cider doughnut, you ask? Oh, you poor deprived child, you. Yes, here in California you had sunshine and skateboarding, while we had slush and mittens, but the doughnuts, and the snow days, were worth it. Cider doughnuts are nothing more than cake doughnuts made with apple cider in the dough, usually rolled in cinnamon sugar and best served minutes from the fryer. For East Coast kids, though, they have a mythical connection to autumn, all part of the memory of deep blue skies and the crunch of leaves underfoot, geese flying in V's overhead and the first smell of woodsmoke after dinner.