Apple Fest is one of the major events that take place in Ithaca every year. To celebrate the beginning of fall, the Ithaca Commons hosts a three-day festival dedicated to apples. Tons of vendors flock to the area to sell all kinds of local products, from fresh apples to apple-inspired products to honey and syrups to your favorite local restaurant dishes to carnival foods, and everything in between.
Everyone knows about the apple cider donuts (and if you don’t, you will). There’s a line of people every day of Apple Fest, rain or shine, eagerly waiting to get to the front and sink their teeth into the fried flavor of fall. If you haven’t already tried them, the Ithaca tradition of waiting two hours is definitely worth it. There’s also the maple kettle corn that draws long lines to a sweet version of everyone’s favorite movie snack. Again, if you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend. In my three-and-a-half years of being a Cornellian, I have never left the festival without a bag. However, if you’re a seasoned Apple Fest veteran, and you still think it’s appropriate to go and only stand in line for the apple cider donuts and maple popcorn, you need to re-prioritize and branch out. So to maximize your experience, here is a list of all the things you’re not eating at Apple Fest but need to try this year.
I know what you’re thinking: This one’s too obvious. But you’d be surprised at how many people skip the apples and go straight to the donuts or the maple popcorn. The apples themselves are different than what you may be used to because they aren’t from Tops or Wegmans, where they’ve been sitting on the shelf for a while getting touched by every citizen in Ithaca. These apples still have a firm skin that gives them a hearty crunch, and they are bursting with their naturally sweet and tart flavors.
Apple BBQ Pulled Pork with Apple Slaw
There seems to be a whole lot going on with this dish, but I am a Southern girl, and BBQ has a way of finding me. No one makes BBQ pulled pork like my mother, but this is a really interesting take on a traditional Southern meal. The sweetness from the apple complements the savory pork and enhances the vinegar flavor in the slaw. This booth (right next to Laughing Goat Fiber) also has your other basic apple goods, including apple cobbler and apple crisp.
Smoked Gouda Apple Mac and Cheese
This is another one of my hometown favorites with an Apple Fest twist. Not only are the macaroni noodles perfectly al dente, but the Gouda cheese sauce is creamy with a strong flavor that includes just enough apple to make the dish sweet without being overwhelming. You can order it with or without pork from one of the local vendors.
Apple Fried Rice
Sweet rice always makes me a little hesitant to take that first bite, but this version really works. The rice has a firm texture that is offset by the softened apple chunks. It’s reminiscent of a Waldorf salad, but it’s not quite as chewy. This Taste of Thai dish warms you up as fall starts to settle in Ithaca.
Brie Grilled Cheese with Apple
Om Nom Nomelettes created a sandwich that is definitely not your classic grilled cheese, and I don’t recommend dipping it in tomato soup. Brie cheese is a very good melting cheese and it smothered the apple slices on this sandwich so that there was a perfect sweet and salty combination. An apple butter spread was also slathered onto the freshly baked bread — which was both buttery and flaky — for some added moisture.
I am very much aware that getting the apple crisp is almost equivalent to getting the apple cider donuts, but it is too good for me to exclude it from the list. There are so many combinations going on in this flimsy paper bowl — tender apples and crunchy oat topping, warm crisp and cold ice cream, crumbly and smooth, sweet and spicy. It’s offered by multiple vendors all over the Commons, so you get a constant reminder that you need to try this apple delicacy.
There is such a plethora of dishes and products offered by local vendors, cooks, bakers and manufacturers at Apple Fest that it’s difficult to choose which ones are worth trying. Get the free samples when you can so you get the most out of your day — the café espresso apple cider, the apple butter and the maple-flavored anything are really good. Try at least a couple of dishes that shouldn’t have apples but do, and make sure to eat a couple of normal, non-apple products if you aren’t too full (homemade breads, giant chocolate chip cookies, candy apples, a red velvet funnel cake).
But don’t forget the apples.