In true Ithaca fashion, Apple Harvest Festival is something caught between a nostalgic, agrarian county fair and an eclectic, trendy Brooklyn food festival. It’s a celebration of all things apple — apple pies, apple cider and candied apples — but more than that, it’s a celebration of the Finger Lakes area and the people who shape it. With millions of acres of farmland (52,000 of which are devoted exclusively to apple orchards), Upstate New York is a mecca for farmers, chefs, bakers and wine makers who come together one weekend in late September to share their passion for food with the masses.
“I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, so we don’t really have many orchards or apples. This is something that’s really unique to New York state, so I’m just excited to eat as many apple-themed foods as possible,” explained Olivia Smith ’22. “I waited in line for 30 minutes for an apple cider doughnut. It was so worth it.”
Naturally, a mainstay of Apple Fest is the apple cider doughnut. They’re available on every corner, but one stand rises to the top. Under a no-frills white tent, an Amish family cranks out hundreds of plump little doughnuts with incredible efficiency.
“We make the glaze at home but everything else, all the frying, we do right here,” said the manager, flipping a doughnut to reveal its golden underbelly. To her right, another woman, red-faced, dispenses perfect rings of batter into 375 degree oil. It’s almost October, but it’s 82ºF and under the tent, it’s much hotter. It’s grueling work, but the family that runs the Little Farm Bakery is glad to do it.
From Romulus, N.Y., just 45 minutes north of Ithaca, they live in a community with about 300 other Amish families. “This is our main event of the year,” said a bearded man in a broad-brimmed straw hat. “We started setup just after 6 a.m., when it was hardly daylight. It’s a long day, but we have about 13 people working in total, so we switch on and off.” Nieces, nephews, cousins, sisters and brothers mix, shape, fry and envelope the doughnuts in a veil of satiny glaze.
The mesmerizing process is equally imperative to the experience as is consuming the doughnut itself, especially for a generation of Instagram foodies whose phones eat before they do. “It’s the old fashioned way,” said the owner. “It seems like that’s what the people like … hot, fresh doughnuts.” She shrugged and chuckled. She’s right — the people certainly do like them, so much so that the line dragged down the block.
Just a few stands down the street, another Amish group from Interlaken, N.Y., set up shop for the 21st year in a row. A decadent spread of old-timey pies, apple crumb cakes, whoopie pies and angel food cakes blanketed the counter. The sheer quantity of products was astounding, an operation comparable to the high volume bakery at Costco. “We’ve been doing prep work for weeks and doing actual baking, day and night, for the last several days,” said a young woman filling an empty spot on the table with a pumpkin pie from a seemingly never-ending supply. As most Amish do not sell on Sundays for religious reasons, it’s essential to go Friday or Saturday to get the full experience of their baked delicacies and desserts.
“My goal today is to eat the weirdest apple product I can find,” said one festival goer. He’s not alone in his quest; the pure peculiarity of the various apple-themed offerings is one of the festival’s many joys. Multiple vendors served up their own spin on dishes like apple grilled cheese, applesauce burgers and apple mac and cheese. Among those keeping up with the trend include the chefs at Coltivare, a farm to table restaurant and culinary center in Ithaca Commons, who dished out heaping paper boats of creamy, smoked Gouda mac and cheese with apple butter.
Between bites, some festival attendees sampled hard ciders and chatted with farmers about the laborious production processes, from tree grafting to bottling. In Van Etten, N.Y., just over 20 miles south of Ithaca, is an orchard perched on a hill beside Cayuga Creek, where a renovated 1950’s dairy barn now functions as a working cidery. Eve’s Cidery is the brainchild of a dynamic trio: a former criminal defense lawyer, a gutsy entrepreneur and a sixth generation orchardist, who all share a common appreciation for the “hard yet meaningful work of sustainable farming.” Their hard ciders have been lauded by Vogue, The New York Times and Wine Spectator, but the team stays true to their roots as a rural, working farm, opening their doors to the public for free tours and tastings and hosting educational events about “soil to glass” production.
Down the street, a long line snakes in front of Indian Creek Farm’s apple cider booth, an impressive wooden structure, painted a cheery lime green with a large tin roof. It’s a rural farmstand taken straight out of the pastoral countryside, plopped into the center of Downtown Ithaca. The secret to their popular Orchard Ambrosia cider, explained one field assistant, is the use of multiple varieties of apples and pears, which are ground up and cold-pressed right on farm premises. The juice is exceptionally fresh and unpasteurized, which allows it to maintain an intense apple flavor. One single cup of cider requires about six whole apples, leaving no room for corner-cutting with skeptical additives.
Apple Harvest Festival is a snapshot of life upstate, its deep-rooted traditions and its quirks and eccentricities. The people who grow the apple trees, pick the fruit, press the cider and lattice the pies are the people who make upstate New York such a unique and dynamic place to live and learn. Their passion for fresh, homegrown foods and their local Finger Lakes Area pride are evident with every juicy, crispy bite.