VERNON COUNTY - While some people search for the best Bloody Mary, or, here in Wisconsin, maybe the best fish fry, I’ve been on the lookout for the best caramel apple—with nuts.
The challenge with finding the best caramel apple versus the best Bloody Mary or fish fry is that you don’t have all year to look. At best you have 30 to 90 days in the fall. I should know. I’ve been searching out caramel apples since I was nine years old and waiting for all of my permanent teeth to come in—my apple-eating teeth.
As an adult, I now realize “the Apple Man” was not even ten miles away from our home in Hales Corners. But when I was a child, it seemed like we drove to the other side of the world to visit this magical place.
The Apple Man was the pet name I gave to Patterson’s Orchard, on the outskirts of New Berlin, Wisconsin. I loved seeing the rows of apple trees, all the baskets filled with various types of apples, pumpkins, and gourds, and the caramel apples that my young sweet tooth craved. I wasn’t interested in the pickled asparagus or beans, jars of jelly, or the mums that looked half dead to me.
Before I was back in the car, I was working my tiny mouth into a twisted O trying to bite my apple. The first bite was all caramel and nuts; the second, a little of both with the bonus of a bit of apple! I loved Patterson’s caramel apples and I especially loved that they didn’t come in a God-awful hard plastic wrapper that appeared to be childproof—maybe even bulletproof. Just the apple and the stick—perfect.
One year, when I had become a sulky teenager, instead of going to the Apple Man my mom took me to Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where they were having a fall festival. I vividly recall walking down a street of stores and vendors with one goal in mind: finding the caramel apples. When I finally did, it was all I could do to keep from foaming at the mouth.
There was a whole table, covered with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth, devoted to caramel apples. You could pick your apple from three different types: Macintosh, Cortland, and some kind of green apple I had no desire to try. After questioning the lady as to what apple would be the firmest, my favorite type of apple to devour, I choose the biggest Cortland I could find. To my amazement there was a vat of warm caramel being stirred and the customers were able to stick their apple in and give it a twirl. First, though, as I realized a little too late, you needed to carefully poke the stick into the end of the apple in such a fashion that it didn’t come out sideways and rip open your hand. Straight up the bottom was how I remembered it.
After the caramel dipping there was a small cup filled with peanuts into which you stuck your apple, pulling it back out covered with nuts. Pure heaven.
Eating that apple was a whole new experience. I now had all my permanent apple-chomping teeth, but I also had every yellow jacket in a five-mile radius following me. My mom kept snapping, “Just eat the apple, Janie,” and I’d angrily snap back, “I’m trying to!” And I was, I truly was, but those pesky sweet-loving pests weren’t about to cut me any slack. Finally, I went running, the bees giving chase, and into a large plastic-lined garbage can went my beloved caramel apple.I sulked, like any teenager would have, all the way back home.
Over the years, I continued craving caramel apples and searching for the best of the best until, seventeen years ago, when I moved to a place near Gays Mills, Wisconsin. Bingo! Every year, every week they are open, I visit the orchards and buy a caramel apple with nuts. I’m never disappointed, and thankfully my choppers are still all my own and can work an apple down to its core lickety-split. These days I even save the cores—I stash them inside my car’s cup holder and give them to Louisa, my apple-loving pig, when I get home.
With over 50 years of sampling caramel apples from anywhere I can find them—festivals, supermarkets, and roadside stands—I’m happy to say I’ve finally discovered where to find the best of the best. You’ll find me there every week until apple season ends.