CONTOOCOOK, N.H. -- Drive through town, turn up the hill and swing into an old orchard homestead that has been in the hands of only two families since 1760. The air and the huge wooden crates out by the barn are filled with the autumn aroma of apples.
Here, on Gould Hill, New Hampshire's choices for the season are on display: McIntosh, the establishment selection, here in North America almost as long as this orchard has been in operation. Hampshire, the native favorite but a relative newcomer. Empire, with a name reflecting the muscular outlook of the country. Fuji, an immigrant with popular appeal. Northern Spy, hard and tart. Plus others: Winesap. York. Cortland. Baldwin.
After a long, difficult political contest, this choice -- which apple is richer, juicier, more versatile, more enduring, better for baking -- is about the only decision New Hampshire is ready to make right now.
On the horizon on a day like this, which in the crisp glow of a New England afternoon is etched with the peaks of the White Mountains, is Thanksgiving. At the foot of Hardy Hill up in Grafton County that means two kinds of stuffing (Jane DeGange's mother's recipe and a newfangled mushroom and leek bread pudding variety), plus squash made with cream cheese and nutmeg, and boiled onions -- not the dinky kind from the bottle on the supermarket shelf or freezer, but big onions slathered in heavy cream and seasoned with salt, pepper and butter. I need not add that dessert is apple pie with crumb crust, pecan pie, mince pie (only the husband eats that one) and the famous pumpkin chiffon pie that, every year, dirties every dish in the house, or maybe it only seems that way.
(An article of conviction around here is what is known as the Cattabriga principle, named for the redoubtable Enola Cattabriga, wife of a postman and renowned in these hills for her tortellini and for pickles made from the white part of the watermelon rind: Never, never buy a turkey smaller than 14 pounds because if you do you are paying for bone. No wonder thrift is a part of the local political scene.)
There was frost here the other day, and up in Enfield there is a thin crust of snow on Whaleback Mountain, and on a hill in Lebanon, Raymond Farr is cutting and splitting two truckloads of logs into 30 cords of wood. But right now the priorities are cider (richer now in autumn because the apples have matured, thicker and more pungent than it was in the first press late in summer) and high school football (with the town rivalry games completed, the divisional playoffs still linger).
So dare we say the New Hampshire primary is but 38 months off? Dare we toss around candidates' names like field apples, known in these parts as "blow downs," rotting on the moist, mushy earth? Dare we shatter the tranquility with the horrible word "viable," used only in hospital waiting rooms and political campaigns?
Maybe we do, given that former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida already have asked to be invited to Lincoln Day Dinners and only the serious or foolhardy volunteer to travel to New Hampshire in February.
We plunge in with reluctance, but also with the knowledge that 2016 will be an especially intriguing contest, both party nominations being open with no incumbent eligible to run. And with the knowledge that New Hampshire next time will provide unusually interesting terrain, for after this month's election every member of the congressional delegation (and the governor) is a woman, the first time that has happened anywhere.
That sounds revolutionary, especially for a state that until recently was steeped in a certain brand of conservatism, the kind that resists change. But in 2008 New Hampshire became the first state with a female majority in a legislative chamber. So women are a powerful part of the political scene here, which is a fact that surely has not escaped the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who won here in 2008, and Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who went to college up in Hanover and is fired with ambition if not visibility.
Because columns of this sort are supposed to be loaded with names, here they are. Republican candidates might include Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Mike Pence, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan, whose great advantage is that his sister works for Dunkin' Donuts, the most revered company in the region. Democrats might include Andrew Cuomo, Martin O'Malley and even Joe Biden, whose six visits since Labor Day cannot be a coincidence. Does it matter that John Hickenlooper has started to make contact with locals, and do you have any idea who he is?
Yet it isn't personalities but politics that first must be worked out. The Democrats must contemplate the world after Barack Obama and decide whether they can sustain their coalition of women, minorities and immigrants with him in retirement.
But the biggest challenge is the Republicans'. They cannot again tie their fortunes to a base that is aging rapidly and losing its vitality. They cannot afford to get clobbered among voters under 30 and among minorities, even though there aren't many minorities here, where the voting-age population is 96 percent white.
Among the moderate Republicans who remain fixtures here, there is worry the party just spent a year talking about the destruction of the American character and then was surprised that those Americans supposedly undermining the national character turned against them. The view here: The Republican campaign was exclusionary, not inclusive, a major misreading of what politics is about.
Memo to Republicans contemplating a New Hampshire visit: Republicans here are concerned about fiscal issues, not social issues. Likely GOP primary voters here support abortion rights more than Americans as a whole, and they don't recoil at gay marriage. New Hampshire Republicans didn't even mount an effort to repeal gay marriage when they had a chance.
One last thing. The other day some folks around here were sitting with their coffee cups wondering -- actually speculating -- who would be the first damn fool to cross state lines to write about the 2016 election. Now they know.
COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE