As American as apple pie, right? Sure! But As New England as apples is the correct adage, with the former following a close second.
Apples have been more closely associated with New England than any other fruit and any other state, second only to pumpkin. Our Yankee heritage was literally raised on everything apple. From cider(hard and "soft")to sauce to pies, apples(in the form of applesauce) were even used in place of fat in cakes much of the time, as we have just "rediscovered".
Two of the favorites among the Puritans and colonists in New England was "apple sass" and dried apple pie. "Apple Sass" was a dish that was exactly the same as making apple butter(see below) but was stopped in the middle stages. It was always made in the fall and kept in a barrel right outside the front door so that any child, when told to do so, would simply open the door and scrape out a chunk of frozen "apple sass", bring it in and everyone would enjoy it once thawed.
Dried apples were made into pies when it was off season. It was dried as pumpkin, peeled and thinly sliced before stringing on a long twine to hang above the fireplace mantel to dry. When a pie was ready to make, they would be taken down, boiled in water to hydrate and made into pie, cobbler, crisp, Betty or a wide range of goodies.
There have been many myths about when apples were first brought to America and by whom. Many still believe that it was Johnny Appleseed or some botanist in New York who first planted cultivated apple trees. Neither, of course, is true. Although many of you may find this a little boring, being a book-a-holic and a lifelong lover of anything New England, I love to spread the word about anything Yankee, and apples just happens to be part of who we are.
Crabapples have been part of the original(Native)Americans diet long before we set foot on these shores. Sure, we have all tasted them, but most of us have spit it out just as fast. Sour, bland and even astringent can be easily attributed to many species of these small apples.
In order to overcome this, the Indians used to throw them in the fire, as is, and let them roast until fairly soft. Taking them out to cool and eating them as is was truly a sweet treat in the days of no sugar. Over time, even before the landing of any European, apples were stewed with fish and game, along with pumpkins and edible greens found growing abundantly everywhere.
This is not to say that sweeter, larger wild apple varieties didn't grow on these shores before the arrival of the English. Although all historians concur that sweet apples were not to be found, this is untrue. See the story of the Baldwin apple below. If the Baldwin apple was found, surely there had to have been at least on other type of sweet apple growing in the wilderness of the East coast.
It is averred to by historians over and over again that Europeans brought apple seeds and seedlings to Virginia first before these larger, sweeter apples made their way to New England. Let me set the record straight.
Although we may give John Chapman(Johnny Appleseed)credit for spreading apple seeds in the central Atlantic coast and Illinois at the beginning of the 1800s, he is almost 2 centuries later than the original Johnny Appleseed, a man named William Blackstone.
William arrived in late 1622, when the flood of Europeans was just starting to swell, and when he set food on this new land, he had crossed the Atlantic with a few pouches of apple pips(seeds). Starting on Beacon Hill in Boston, he traveled south to Rhode Island, burying these seeds along the way and once he reached Rhode Island, he began planting orchards there as well.
The first type of apple planted by William? The Roxbury Russet! The main reason for him(as well; as all other planters)to start growing apples? For cider.
It is amusing as to how William came across all these apple seeds. He simply started by saving all the apple cores from friends and family back in England, and even kept all the apple cores from his fellow ship mates on the way here.
Now we have a man planting apple seeds in New England in 1622, but we also have record of "winter banana" or "melt-in-your-mouth" orchards(the general term for apples during this time) being planted in Virginia at the same time.
In December, 1622, the Council of the Virginia Company in England addressing the Governor of Virgina, sent this communication on board either the Discovery, Bona Nova or the Hopewell.
"Wee haue by this Shipp and the Discouerie sent you diurs [divers] sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue [perceive]; the preservation & encrease whereof we respond vnto you…"
The main reason, at the time, to transport beehives to this new land was for the growth of apple trees.
Many historians will relate that even though apple seeds and saplings were brought to this new country, we didn't start growing apple trees for a number of years because there were no "white mans flies" indigenous to North America. "White man's flies" were what the Indians(according to Thomas Jefferson) called honey bees. We know that to be wrong now.
The immigrants DID bring honey bees with them, for they knew that without honey bees, there would be no apples, hence no cider. And a Yankee with no cider is like a dog with no bark.
The Native Americans were not without their own bee population however. For centuries, the Indians collected honey from nests by using smoke to sedate the swarms in order to reach in and pull out this sweet nectar.
There is record after record of "skeps" and "gums" being part of the store on board almost all ocean-born ships on their way to New England,. Skeps were simply woven, straw baskets with a dome lid(resembling a hive actually) that housed honeybees.
The same with "gums". This was a more sturdy bee 'keeper' that was a 3 foot length of tree that was hollowed out almost all the way to one end, resembling a large pail. Plugging the open end once the bees were caught and placed inside, this would safely transport honeybees here to New England.
Another early record of apple seeds or seedlings being brought over here to New England was late 1628, early 1629, when Governor John Endicott requested(on behalf of the Boston Bay Company):
"Vine-planters, wheat, rye, barley, oats, a hogshead of each in the ear: beans, pease, stones of all sorts of fruits, as peaches, plums, filberts, cherries: pear, apple, quince kernels: pomegranates, woad seed, saffron heads, liquorice seed, madder roots, potatoes, hop-roots, hemp seed, flax seed, currant plants, and madder seeds." But no mention of bees, therefore it is only strongly speculated that the colony had their fair share of honeybees ready to pollinate."
By 1640, apple orchards were everywhere throughout the land, and the Natives were beginning to understand the importance of this fruit as well.
By 1650, the swarms of bees had made their way to Connecticut and Pennsylvania, pollinating many apple trees.
Over the years, orchards were slowly becoming a business venture for some. In 1737, Robert Prince established the first apple orchard solely for commercial use in New York. It was so important of a crop that the British even posted armed guards around the perimeter of this nursery to prevent Americans from seizing it.
It wasn't until the first quarter of the 19th century that the Pacific Northwest saw their own apple trees. A Captain Aemilius Simmons was given some apple seeds by a young lady in England to plant in this part of America.
Some lore regarding apples are interesting to note as well. Apple boughs, much like pine boughs during Christmas, were hung above the entryway of homes to bless the family with good luck year round. Women used to cut apples cross-wise and offered one half to their prospective "beau to be", in order to hurry the attraction.
-The Irish tradition of La mas nbbal(the feast of gathering apples) took place on Halloween, which included apple cider which had apples floating on top. People would take an apple out and eat if for good luck. This was the beginning of Bobbing For Apples, commonly seen here in America to this day.
-We all know of the ancient New England rite of wassailing, but in England, wassailing the apple trees was a common practice. The English would toast the most productive of all apple trees growing on their property by reciting the following verses three times, while enjoying hot cider and cakes, ensuring apple prosperity for years to come. This was an annual event well into the 1900s:
"Here’s to thee, old apple tree!"
Whence thou mays’t bud, and whence thou mays’t blow,
Hats full! Caps full! Bushel-bushel-bags full!
And my pockets full, too! Huzza!"
"Wassaile the trees, that they may beare,
You many a Plum and many a Peare,
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing."
Have you even heard of the term upper crust? That, too, is a Yankee original. In Puritan times, when ground flour was not as abundant as decades to follow, crusts for pies was used in a utilitarian fashion. That is, only the bottom crust was made for an apple pie, to prevent sticking and to actually make a pie, rather than a concoction of stewed apples. Anyone lucky enough, or rich enough, to obtain more flour were able to form a top crust, or upper crust, for their pies.
We all also know that the sole purpose of growing apples in the very beginning colonization of this land was for the cider but it was also a product of choice for bartering for other home staples when the need arose.
A plate from Amelia's book
By 1796, the famous Amelia Simmons, in the first American cookbook, American Cookery says;
"Apples are still more various, yet rigidly retain their own species, and are highly useful in families, and ought to be more universally cultivated, excepting in the compactest cities. There is not a single family but might set a tree in some otherwise useless spot, which might serve the two fold use of shade and fruit; on which 12 or 14 kinds of fruit trees might easily be engrafted, and essentially preserve the orchard from the intrusions of boys, &c. which is too common in America.
If the boy who thus planted a tree, and guarded and protected it in a useless corner, and carefully engrafted different fruits, was to be indulged free access into orchards, whilst the neglectful boy was prohibited--how many millions of fruit trees would spring into growth--and what a saving to the union. The net saving would in time extinguish the public debt, and enrich our cookery."
During the same decade, Samuel Deane expounded how to preserve apples in his New England Farmer;
"I gather them about noon on the day of the full of the moon which happens in the latter part of September, or beginning of October. Then spread them in a chamber, or garret, where they lie till about the last of November. Then, at a time when the weather is dry, remove them into casks, or boxes, in the cellar, out of the way of the frosts; but I prefer a cool part of the cellar. With this management, I find I can keep them till the last of May, so well that not one in fifty will rot...
"In the Autumn of 1793, I packed apples in the shavings of pine, so that they scarcely touched one another. They kept well till some time in May following; though they were a sort which are mellow for eating in December. Dry sawdust might perhaps answer the end as well. Some barrel them up, and keep them through the Winter in upper rooms, covering them with blankets or mats, to prevent freezing. Dry places are best for them."
Another utilitarian feature of apple cider was the storage. It was easily able to be kept all year round without fear of spoilage.
The Farmers Assistant, 1820:
"Cider may be kept for years in casks, without fermenting, by burying them deeply under ground, or immersing them in spring water; and when taken up the cider will be very fine."
Some other references from the same book:
"A drink, called cider-royal, is made of the best runing of the cheese, well clarified, with six or eight gallons of French brandy, or good cider brandy, added to a barrel: Let the vessel be filled full, bunged tight, and set in a cool cellar, and in the course of a twelvemonth it will be a fine drink. If good rectified whiskey be used, instead of brandy, it will answer very well.
"A quart of honey, or molasses, and a quart of brandy, or other spirits, added to a barrel of cider, will improve the liquor very much, and will restore that which has become too flat and insipid. To prevent its becoming pricked, or to cure it when it is so, put a little pearl-ashes, or other mild alkali, into the cask. A lump of chalk broken in pieces, and thrown in, is also good. Salt of tartar, when the cider is about to be used, is also recommended.
"To refine cider, and give it a fine amber-color, the following method is much approved of. Take the whites of 6 eggs, with a handful of fine beach sand, washed clean; stir them well together; then boil a quart of molasses down to a candy, and cool it by pouring in cider, and put this, together with the eggs and sand, into a barrel of cider, and mix the whole well together. When thus managed, it will keep for many years. Molasses alone will also refine cider, and give it a higher color; but, to prevent the molasses making it prick, let an equal quantity of brandy be added to it. Skim-milk, with some lime slacked in it, and mixed with it, or with the white of eggs with the shells broken in, is also good for clarifying all liquors, when well mixed with them. A piece of fresh bloody meat, put into the cask, will also refine the liquor and serve tor it to feed on.
A truly American dish is Apple Butter. It was a full day affair to put up a good amount of this tasty treat in the early days. Good, solid, blemish-free apples(much like the apples needed for cider) were ground by a homemade apple grinder that was powered by horse. This grinder was set on a wooden platform and as the apples were ground, the pulp was sandwiched in dried grass or straw. It was then covered with wooden planks and pressed to extract as much juice as possible. The pulp was given to their domesticated animals while the cider was boiled...and boiled...and boiled...in big copper kettles.
When it was thick, it was placed in another kettle next to it over the fire while more cider was replenished in the large kettle. At the end of the day, when all the cider was boiled down to the consistency of molasses, sometimes even thicker, more apples were peeled, cored and cut up small to add to this thick "sauce".
For the next 8-10 hours, whenever the apples boiled down to thicken this sauce even further, more cut apples were added, constantly stirring over the fire so it would not scorch. When the apple butter was dark brown and too thick to stir anymore, work was done. By this time the apple butter was said to be thick enough to slice and the sugar content allowed this apple butter to keep well over a year in their root cellar.
Here is a recipe from 1839, found in The Kentucky Housewife:
"10 gallons of water
6 gallons of the best molasses
8 bushels of apples
1 pound mixed spice-cloves, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg
To ten gallons of water add six gallons of the best molasses, mixing them well together. Put it into a large kettle over a good fire. Let it come to a hard boil, and skim it as long as any scum continues to rise. Take out half the liquid, and put it into a tub
Have ready eight bushels of fine sound apples, pared, cored and quartered. Throw them gradually into the liquid that is still boiling on the fire. Let it continue to boil hard, and as it thickens, add by degrees the other half of the molasses and water, (that which has been put into the tub.). Stir it frequently to prevent its scorching, and to make it of equal consistence throughout. Boil it ten or twelve hours, continuing to stir it
At night take it out of the kettle, and set it in tubs to cool; covering it carefully. Wash out the kettle and wipe it very dry. Next morning boil the apple butter six or eight hours longer; it should boil eighteen homs altogether. Half an hour before you take it finally out, stir in a pound of mixed spice; cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, all finely powdered. When entirely done, put up the apple butter in stone or earthen jars. It will keep a year or more."
Another leading apple in New England was the Baldwin. It remained revered by Yankees until the bitter cold winter of 1934, when well over a million trees succumbed to the bitter cold and died. The Baldwin apple was obtainable, but at a huge price. It was during this time that the current favorite among Yankees, the McIntosh, began to gain popularity.
The Baldwin apple was found growing wild near a place called Wood Hill in Williamton, Massachusetts by Will Butler, the son of the original settler of that town. It was about 1725 that this tree was discovered right on his own lawn, and there sits a monument to this day commemorating it. Sadly, this tree fell in 1816, due to a gale.
The Baldwin was originally called the Woodpecker, because the tree was filled with holes from woodpeckers. The name then changed to the Butters apple, after a certain Mr. Butters who purchased this farm a generation or two later. Mr. Butters gave one of these apples to Col. Loammi Baldwin, who propagated it and spread this perfect cider apple throughout Massachusetts.
To add insult to injury, the bitterly cold winter of 1934 wiped out many of the apple orchards in New England, including the Baldwin. But for some reason, the McIntosh withstood this harsh winter and thrived to become New England's favorite apple.
Find below, some of the most beloved of all New England apple desserts, from the very beginning..
Pandowdy, some say from pandoulde, meaning custard from a pan, was a popular New England dessert of old. The true meaning, however, comes from the fact that the top was dowdied, or cut up, after baking.
Nathaniel Hawthorne even immortalized it in his The Blithedale Romance(1852):
"Hollingsworth [would] fill my plate from the great dish of pan-dowdy."
Apple Brown Betty uses bread as a crunchy topping and is yet another Yankee original. See my recipe on this site.
Apple Cobbler, again see theyankeechef.com, is so maligned that I fear the true preparation is lost. It should be baked with a biscuit topping, shaped to resemble a cobblestone street on top.
Apple Crisp is generally made with a crispy rolled oat topping, but is equally pleasant with a flour/sugar/butter mixture. As long as it lives up to the moniker, crisp.
Apple Grunts or Slumps is classically a steamed pudding, but now has transformed into a baked, or even stove top, dessert. As long as it lives up to the original meaning, it can be a true Grunt of Slump. The meaning? It was so named because of the grunt sound it makes when cooking or because it slumps down(reduces)when cooking.
Apple Buckle is simply apples and a cake mix stirred together and baked. It is called Buckle because the dough seems to "buckle under", or give in to all the fruit while baking.
Apple Charlotte. A tough meaning to convey so I will simply tell you that if it isn't made with bread, it isn't a true Charlotte. See my recipe on this site.
And I must add one last item. Apple Jack, the original Apple Jack, not that mass produced alcohol. It was also called Jersey Lightning because during the colonial era, road crews were paid with this very hard rendition of apple cider. It was the Yankee answer to the Southerner's White Lightning, and much more potent. Hard cider was frozen in the winter time. What didn't freeze was siphoned off and put aside to freeze again. This was repeated 1 more time and what was left was as pure a homemade alcohol as you were able to make. And talk about a kick in the pants