Apple smash: Stinging good times in the holler

Yellow jackets– potent weapons, workers of an impatient queen hidden deep within her dark paper fortress. Where are they? Her special brood needs attention– the great pale grubs that will be next year's minions (or a rich feast for bear or raccoon willing to face the queen's wrath).

Usually yellow jackets are scattered, busy, searching for caterpillars and other fine meats they butcher with sharp jaws to feed the hungry hoard. Today they're distracted, drawn to the sweet smell of crushed apples like moths to a flame.

Lost in pleasure, they wallow in the fragrant nectar, clustered a hundred strong on the weathered plank directing the juice to a jug. Sherry, holding the strainer, nurses a swollen finger and tries to determine whether the stinger remains. The jackets aren't aggressive.

It's not like Sherry was asking for trouble by messing with the queen's nest. No, they're merely on vacation, drunk and reveling, flying if they can, but mostly crawling, wading, swimming– often drowning– in gluttony. The hot yellow insects are all over, crawling on sticky hands, slipping by the dozen into the strainer. It's hard not to grab one by mistake, with painful consequences.

I once poured a drowned one into a cup of the dark fermented liquid, then offered it jokingly to my friend. A deep sip... "Bleah!, Yellow Jacket!" Mountain humor.

Hundreds of apples thunder to the ground in the abandoned nearby orchard as men and boys rattle the branches from high in the trees. Below, we dodge the downpour to gather tart green Pippins with their hint of red blush, great green Falla Waters, pink misshapen Yorks, and insipidly sweet Red Delicious. We tumble the apple mix into a weathered wooden hopper, the ancient press a hive of activity of its own.

Kate smacks the apple pile with an old baseball bat while Adam strains youthful muscles to crank the handle and spin the great flywheel that turns the crusher teeth to render the fruit into a shredded mash.

Cautious hands move the pulp along the wood trough through the teeming yellow jackets and position it under the great cast-iron screw that Robby twists ever more tightly. As he uses another bat to lever the handle prongs a little extra for good measure, juice runs freely from the tortured pulp into a kettle. Polly skims off floating yellow jackets and bits of mash before transferring the fragrant brown liquid to jugs for cooling in the creek.

Susan's old cider press– with its cracked cast iron, wired-on sheet metal patches, and rough locust post repairs– is the working remnant of a machine that's been delighting our family (and the yellow jackets) for a hundred years or more. The thick juice was central to Hungrytown life throughout the year in days not so long gone by.

Now, as then, a barrel of the sugar-rich liquid, left to stand a few days, gathers new life. Tiny bubbles rise in creamy foam and bite the tongue with jabs of pleasure as friendly yeasts change "water into wine"– as mere apple juice miraculously becomes cider.

In time, if cider is kept covered but unsealed, anaerobic fermentation creates beer-like hard cider, and the sweetness is replaced with enough alcohol to make intemperate drinkers as happy as the yellow jackets.

Seal it at your own risk. I tried it once in a corked champagne bottle. Half its pressurized contents sprayed the kitchen ceiling, but what was left was delicious.

My old-timer friend Lewis, now long dead, once spoke to me reverently of a barrel of hard cider he'd saved until the cold heart of winter. His axe shattered ice to the barrel's core. Lewis siphoned off applejack, the unfrozen alcohol-rich remnant. A few sips, and winter was gone: Louis was as warm and contented as the yellow jackets.

Eventually, as the winter passes, the remaining cider stops entertaining folks and gets practical. With air and time, last year's juice becomes vinegar, its sour final incarnation. Before refrigeration and canning, vinegar was key for winter food preservation.

You can still find remnants in country stores: pickled pigs feet, pickled herring, red eggs pickled in beet juice and vinegar. Grandma's shelves still contain her special vinegar-based watermelon pickle, cucumber pickles, pickled beets, and pickled peaches.

I dip up a cup of fresh juice, flick a sodden yellow jacket off the edge, and try a sip. Enveloped in thick aroma, I join the the insects in heady delight as the tart juice flows full around my tongue and cool down my throat: the deep taste of apples and friends and a glorious fall day and ancient rite of harvest.

With his wife, Polly, two cats, and vast quantities of wildlife, Walter Mehring has been building a log cabin for the last 30 years in southern Albemarle County's Hungrytown.