September has arrived and that can mean only one thing for the village of Hampton, Illinois, Apple Fest! This two-day festival takes place in bucolic Hampton, Il and showcases the centerpiece of Hampton history, the Brettun & Black Store. The store opens its doors and allows a peek into its history, accompanied by delicious baked goods, handcrafted items and during the festival they open the café on the lower level. In the café you will find Mary Jane Nelson and her apple dumplings.
Her dumplings are nearly as historic as the village itself. Mary Jane is the 85-year-old matriarch of the Nelson family and a direct descendent of the McNeal family ,who are among the village founders.
As they say it takes a village to raise a child and preparing dumplings is no different. The entire process is guided with Mary Jane at the helm of the ship. She has lifelong friends who always show up during apple dumpling time to participate in this tradition. I joined this event four years ago at the bequest of my guy, her son. I thought how complicated can it be to rollout a bit of dough?
The behind the scenes building of an apple dumpling is nothing short of a precision military engagement and Mary Jane is the 4 star General of the kitchen. In the beginning she made upwards of 800 dumplings, as time goes on and age catches up, the numbers have reduced to around 250 and she always sells out, so get there early.
It begins with apple selection, a complicated process in itself. She selects the type of apple she wants that year and a supplier search begins, orchards are called, random trees are searched until the apples are located. This year the winning orchard was a local one, Stones.
Then the apples are brought home to the Nelson family home located a stones throw from the Mighty Mississippi. The aged two-story wood structure and former store sits on a double lot and is painted a soft yellow with two porches perfect for sitting on a Sunday afternoon basked in the Mississippi Sun.
This season the apple seek and find involved four of us. Mary Jane, her son, my granddaughter and me. The first location we stopped out was the local golf course, a couple of trees laden with fruit had been spotted one day during a round of golf, sampled and confirmed as perfect. Unfortunately, the self-appointed apple keeper of the golf course refused us the apples. We invoked the Wizard of Oz attitude and said ” We don’t want any of THOSE apples” and drove away. The next stop was Stones and it was a success! 250 Honeycrisp apples were loaded up and taken home.
Today is dumpling peeling/freezing day. The veritable assembly line of apple peelers is set up and the tradition begins! This year we have an entire new group joining the tradition. The Esparza family from East Moline is pitching in. The day involves many assignments, perfect for a family project. Peeling, bagging, running to the freezer seemingly endless bags of peelings and apples ( perfect job for two young boys), dough preparation and today she is teaching a young mom the secret of the dough.
The first year I participated, I arrived and was handed an apron. Mary Jane was a Home Economics teacher for many years, so the kitchen is her office. The apron I was allowed to wear was emblazoned with love from a class of students, many names I recognized accompanied by handprints to match. I sat down and was assigned the actual assembly portion, under the watchful eye of Mary Jane. I was instructed how to roll the dough, how many section should come out of each bag ( the dough is carefully packaged in individual bags) and how to take the apple, place it in the center of the dough, fill the center with just the right amount of spices, wrap the apple and top it off with a cutout dough apple carefully dipped in ice-cold water on the top holding it all together. I followed directions for about 4 hours and our mission for that day was complete.
The following day, I could barely move my arm. Seems rolling is a workout for my rotator cuff. I had new admiration for rolling out 800 apple dumplings. Once all the dumplings are prepared, they return to the freezer on giant cookies sheets ( they are just like those I used in the military) at the appropriate time (designated by Mary Jane) a baking day is set. Full baking sheets are brought in and the apples are topped with a simply syrup (with a secret ingredient known only to the inner circle). One by one sheets are placed in the Nelson family oven, and one by one, the dumplings are cooked. No industrial oven here, just a simple kitchen, in a small town.
After each sheet comes out of the oven, it cools for a bit and then each dumpling is lovingly placed in a container and then boxed for transportation to the Brettun & Black Store.
On event day, her sons arrive with vehicles to transport both their mother (lovingly known as Maw to the inner circle) the two blocks to the store. Dumplings are unloaded and set up downstairs in the café. The downstairs is a quaint brick room, with a couple of windows from which you can see the river. It is set up with apple dumplings, pies, and other baked goods plus hot cider and lemonade. A few dumplings are found on the upper level but those are a sampling more than anything else. To get the full experience you must venture down the grassy slope to the café and meet Maw. She will be seated in her usual place at the card table, always eager to share some history with you or just chat.
If you bake them, they will come. And they do.
Until Next Time,