Apples in America: A Very Brief History

Apples, Photo by Eric Colleary

According to the U.S. Apple Association, apple producers harvested nearly 30 billion apples in 2009, making it one of the largest commercial fruit crops in the United States. The common apple, Malus domestica, is a member of the rose family. The sweet fruits were likely first domesticated in Central Asia. Owing to the hardiness of the trees and their adaptability to diverse climates, apples quickly spread to the Middle East, Greece, and Rome – all of whom contributed to the species’ spread through their respective empires.

Apples in Early America

With the exception of the wild sour crab apple, apples are not indigenous to North America. Seeds were brought to the colonies by the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. One of the few comfort foods reminiscent of home, apples quickly grew in popularity, growing orchards from seed rather than grafting. In growing from seed, the burgeoning colonies created hundreds of unique varieties within a relatively short period of time.

Newton Pippins are one of the oldest American varieties of apple still commercially available. Coincidentally, they were also the first American variety exported from the colonies, when, in 1768, a batch was sent to Benjamin Franklin while on a diplomatic mission in London. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were apple enthusiasts and maintained orchards on their respective estates.

John Chapman – a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed

Growing up in a smaller town in southwest Ohio, I remember hearing legends of Johnny Appleseed in school. The popular image of the American legend is almost a metaphor for several generations of masculinity; a man freely wandering the countryside, spreading his seeds wherever they landed. The real “Johnny Appleseed” was John Chapman, born in Leominster, Massachusetts of a Captain in the Revolutionary War who had served under George Washington. Around the same time, missionaries of Emanuel Swedenborg’s “New Church” immigrated to the United States. As Chapman grew older, he joined their ranks and became an itinerant missionary – travelling the country from Pennsylvania west into Ohio and Indiana preaching Swedenborgianism and sharing stories. Trained as an apprentice orchardman as a young man, Chapman planted apple nurseries in communities where he stopped as a way of funding his travels. He would plant the seeds, fence in the nursery to protect them from animals and livestock, and would then sell the land to a farmer. Chapman taught the farmers how to tend to the trees, and how to sell the young trees to other farmers interested in starting orchards.

Despite the popular image of Appleseed taking a bite from a large red apple from one of his trees, Chapman planted cider apples, not eating apples. Cider apples made up the majority of apple varieties in the United States until the late 19th and early 20th century, and were used to make cider liquor. Chapman died of pneumonia either in 1857 or 1859 in Fort Wayne, Indiana where he is buried. His vast properties of apple nurseries went to his sister – many of which were foreclosed to pay taxes and settle legal debts.

Prohibition

During the 19th century, hard (alcohol) cider was one of the most popular beverages in the United States – far more popular than beer or wine and more widely available than whiskey or bourbon. Cider’s popularity was owed, in part, to the widespread availability of cider apples and the ability to make cider in one’s own home. Much of the bacteria found in well-water was killed during the fermentation process, making cider safer to drink than plain water – indeed, John Adams used to have a glass of cider with breakfast to soothe his stomach. However, the social reform programs of the late 19th century made the Temperance Movement a powerful force in the United States. Prohibitionists across the country advocated chopping down the apple orchards as a way of fighting against the “demon liquor.” Within a relatively brief period of time, hundreds of apple varieties unique to the United States were destroyed. Apple cider has only begun to make a slow comeback in this country since the mid-1990s.

The Sacred Cider Grove by John Conacher, 1919. Library of Congress Collection.

“Are those good eating apples?” – “No, Mister; not this year they ain’t. This year them apples is good drinkin’ apples.”

Apples in America Today

The United States is the second largest producer of apples in the world, behind the People’s Republic of China. One in four apples produced in this country are exported, with Mexico and Canada receiving the most of our exports. Washington, New York and Michigan are the top three apple-growing states. The Red Delicious is the most popular apple variety in the United States – which I can only guess has to do with its classic apple appearance (shiny red skin, and height), given its unremarkable taste and tough skin. New varieties of apples are still regularly produced. Since the 1930s my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, has been coming up with some of our country’s most popular apple varieties, including the internationally popular Honeycrisp.

Apple Season

In much of the United States, apple season begins as early as mid-July and goes in some places through mid-November. This is when you’ll find the best prices and selection of apples in the store and at farmer’s markets.

Part of the season’s apples are kept in cold storage to extend their market “shelf life.” In 1940, Dr. Robert Smock of Cornell University developed a low oxygen, high carbon dioxide cooling storage system that helped keep apples ‘fresh’ longer. If you buy apples between December and late February, you are likely buying apples stored in this way. Almost all of these apples are sold by mid-March. From March to at least July, the apples you buy in the grocery store are likely imported from countries like Chile and Argentina.

Choosing and Storing Apples

There are basically three kinds of apple. Cider apples used to make-up the bulk of apple varieties in the world. Being highly acidic, these apples had many qualities that made it perfect for fermentation, though less desirable as an eating apple. Eating apples make up the bulk of what you find in stores and farmers markets today. These apples are usually identified by having a balance between sweet and tart tastes. Cooking apples are usually exceptionally tart if eaten raw, but sweeten when cooked.

When selecting apples, the first question you should ask is what you’ll be using them for to ensure you buy the appropriate variety. Apples should be firm with little to no soft spots. Generally, smaller apples have a higher concentrated sugar content.

Store apples in a cool dry place – apples stored in a low-humidity crisper drawer in the fridge can last from a month to six weeks.

Preparing

Sliced Apple, Photo by Eric CollearyWhile preparation largely depends on the recipe, there are a few standard tips. Always wash apples before eating or slicing to remove any pesticides from the skin. The fresher and firmer the apple, the easier it will be to cut and peel. The classic way to peel an apple, if you have the time, a sharp knife and don’t mind the core, is to start at the top of the apple, and peel the skin in one large spiraling piece. An old custom is to throw the peel over your shoulder – the letter it spells is said to be the first initial of your beloved.

To chop apples as for a pie, take the whole apple and cut into sections with a chef’s knife. Switching to a smaller paring knife, peel the skins off the slices and trim out the bits of core.

Apples turn brown and soften quickly after cutting due to oxidation. For recipes calling for fresh apples like fruit or Waldorf salads, toss the apple pieces with a bit of lemon juice. However, if you’re making a pie or apple sauce, you’ll want the softer apple.

Pairings

Few things go better with apples than pork. Serve a pork roast, ham or pork ribs with sautéed apples, apple chutney, or marinate the pork in apple cider prior to cooking. Applewood smoke makes some of the best bacon, and applesauce is a traditional accompaniment for potato pancakes. For a more simple approach to apples, slice a few on a cheese board and serve with a light white wine such as a German Riesling.

What are your favorite apple dishes/memories? Share them below!