When I was growing up in a suburb north of Detroit, the best thing about summer ending was the start of cider mill season.
From Labor Day to Thanksgiving, orchards and stands across the region swirl apples in caramel and nuts, arrange displays of enormous and misshapen gourds, and—most importantly—serve cider donuts, the world’s most perfect autumnal snack.
Cider donuts are puffy, squat, simple, and cheap. The best ones are still warm from the fryer, flecked with cinnamon and sugar, and coated in enough oil to turn a paper sack translucent. They should be eaten at least two at a time: one plain, to savor the crunch, and one dunked in a cup of hot cider, sopping up the last few gulps.
Michigan isn’t the birthplace of cider donuts, but it’s hard to imagine autumn there without them. The Boston Globe suggested that the recipe might have evolved from beignets, balls of fried dough that landed in the Northeast states from France and Holland during the Colonial era. The Washington Post has speculated that the donuts became fall staples because the apple crop happened to coincide with hog-slaughtering season, which yielded a lot of delicious lard for deep-frying.
The farms and mills sprinkled to the north and west of the city are a reminder of the agriculture industry that predated and outlasted Detroit’s auto boom and bust. Sprawling orchards had been grafted in the region by the 1700s; saplings even made their way to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, writes Sharon Kegerreis in the book, Michigan Apples: History & Tradition. The industry still has local roots. More than 1.26 billion pounds of apples were harvested across the state in 2013; Michigan farmers average a haul of up to 23 million bushels a year, Metro Times reported.
The Franklin Cider Mill, in Bloomfield Hills, was built in 1837—the same year Michigan earned statehood. Out front, leggy stalks of corn rest in bundles. The walls are covered in endearing, somewhat nonsensical placards (“Don’t say hi, say pie!”). The Parshallville Cider Mill, in Fenton, once ground flour and grain for animal feed; it’s still churned by water power. At Blake’s Orchard in Armada, visitors can cluster inside a café, eating donuts and evading the folks queued up for haunted hayrides, spooky corn mazes, or the Zombie Paintball Safari. Human visitors mingle with swarms of bees trying to swill cider, too. A bright-blue, 4-pound cider donut will also be among the new concessions rolling out at Ford Field this season as the Detroit stadium overhauls its dining options.
Food Network and Bon Appétit allege that you can recreate cider donuts at home, lacing the batter with either apple butter or cider. Strictly speaking, that could be true. (On principle, I refuse to try it.) But a batch from the kitchen can’t compare to watching dozens and dozens of them topple into the fryer, or peering at presses wringing juice from the harvest—an event Metro Times described as an invitation to “witness the apple carnage.” You should eat them while ogling a barn and some leaves bursting into burgundy and ochre, and definitely take some for the road.