By Mark Tully
Apples are an ancient food and may be one of the earliest foods cultivated by man. They are thought to have originated in central Asia and quickly spread into Europe–charred apple remains have been found at prehistoric village sites in Switzerland.
These early apples were quite small and resembled our modern crabapples. The apple trees we know today originated along the Caspian sea near Turkey and apples were a favorite fruit of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They were brought to England by the Romans in the first century B.C. Apples came to North America in the 1600s when the Pilgrims at Massachusetts Bay and the early settlers of Champlain’s colony in Nova Scotia planted orchards.
Apples were also an important food to the early pioneers during westward expansion. Many homesteaders would plant their apple orchard even before they started work on their log cabins, and the early settlers in Ohio and Indiana would often find apple orchards already waiting them–planted years earlier by the legendary “Johnny Appleseed” (also see page 2).1
The old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” has a ring of truth as they are a near-perfect food. Apples are loaded with vitamins and minerals, they are fat free, low calorie (about 80 calories in a medium apple) and a great source of dietary fiber.
The apple variety ‘Delicious’ is the most widely grown in the United States.
Other little-known facts: Apples are a member of the rose family and over 25 percent of an apple’s volume is air–which is what makes them great for “bobbing for apples” as they float.2
Wandering street vendors or “criers” often sold baked apples on the streets (see illustration, below) and a popular bawdy folk song of the period, The Lass of Islington, speaks of an apple seller.
One of the more common techniques for making these involved baking whole apples in a pan with some cloves, lemon peel, sugar and some red wine.4 The apples were also sometimes halved and made into “black caps,” and type of applesauce called pupton.5
Cider was a common 18th-century drink made from apples. Apple juice ferments rather easily, so “hard” (alcoholic) cider was the most common.6 In the period cider was served either hot or cold and sugar, honey and egg whites were sometimes whipped into the mix for variety.7
Thanks largely to Norman Rockwell and Chevrolet, apple pie has become a cultural icon of good old down-home America. Several types of apple pies were also common in the 18th century, both in America and England.8 In addition to the traditional dessert variety there was also a “pye called squob, composed of apples, onions and seasoned meat.”9 This was probably served up as a main course, rather than as a dessert as most pies were and are today.
The best apple pies are made from three different apple varieties, each chosen
for their particular characteristics; one that will hold its shape for texture, one
that will quickly break down and provide juiciness and one that will offer a robust
apple flavor and tartness.10
Apples were also eaten raw right from the tree.11 though many period apple varieties were probably a bit too tart for this practice.
Following are descriptions of several apple varieties dating from around our period. The name, date of introduction, characteristics and color are included so you can more easily identify the variety and best use if you should happen across them at your local market.
18th-c Apple Varieties
ASHMEAD’S KERNEL (England, 1700) A medium sized, golden-brown apple with a sugary, intense flavor.
BALDWIN (Massachusetts, 1784) A large, yellow-orange apple striped with red. Sweet and crisp–especially good for cider and pies.
McINTOSH (Ontario, Canada, 1798) Deep red apple with firm, tender, very juicy flesh. Great for cider and eating but does not keep well.
YELLOW BELLFLOWER, (New Jersey, 1742) A firm, fine-grained, tender, yellow apple. A favorite for baked apples.
SPITZENBURG, (Esopus) (New York, prior to 1800) Medium to large red apple with subtle striping. The Spitzenburg is reported to have been Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple.
NEWTOWN PIPPIN (or Yellow Newtown, New York, 1759) Green to yellow apple with whitish dots. Aromatic flavor. A good keeper.
ROXBURY RUSSET (Massachusetts, prior to 1649). A very old, greenish American apple principally used in cider.
RIBSTON PIPPIN (England, 1769) A greenish-yellow apple striped with red.
ORLEANS REINETTE (France, about 1776) Greenish yellow apple. Flesh is creamy white and very juicy.
RHODE ISLAND GREENING (Rhode Island, 1650) Medium to large green apple. Firm, crisp, juicy. Among the very best of the pie apples.12
2) I picked up these bits of trivia from various web sites.
3) (quote pull-out) Serle, Ambrose, The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, Secretary to Lord Howe (Huntington Library:1940) p 71.
4) Hannah Glasse, First Catch Your Hare, or The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (Devon:Prospect Books) 1995, p 83.
6) Moss, Kay and Hoffman, Kathryn, The Backcountry Housewife, A Study of Eighteenth-Century Foods, (Gastonia, NC: Schiele Museum) 1985, p 77.
8) ibid. Glasse, p 114.
9) Curwen, Samuel, The Journal of Samuel Curwen, Loyalist, edited by Andrew Oliver, Harvard University Press:Salem Massachusetts) 1972, Vol. I, p 255)
10) The three-apple pie information comes from a
program I heard on public radio almost a year ago. The entire program was devoted to talk of pies and the guest expert offered this formula for making the best pie. Her contention was that there is NO apple variety that will provide all three characteristics for a great pie–texture, flavor and juiciness. I don’t remember the woman’s name or the title of her book (where this information is expanded upon) but makes sense to me!
11) ibid. Curwen. Curwen, a Loyalist refugee in London, was on a tight budget
and writes of “filling his pockets” with apples from various gardens and yards
several times throughout his journals.
12) Information on these and other apple varieties comes from: www.applenursery.com/apples.shtml.
Please don’t think I am suggesting that we should only use only “authentic” apple varieties during public hours–I am simply including this information for interested persons who may want to seek out and try some apple varieties that were originally “invented” in the 18th century.