We're going to bite into the history of what writer Rowan Jacobsen calls, "Some of the leading protagonists in the story of American ingenuity, diversity and prosperity." He's not talking about the country's founding fathers, but about its founding fruit: the apple.
If you shop for apples today, you probably notice a few varieties — the Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Macintosh and, maybe, if your local supermarket is a bit adventurous, the occasional Honey Crisp. But those are just a small, sad fraction of what Jacobsen says used to be nearly 7,000 varieties of apples in the country. Henry David Thoreau described them as possessing "racy and wild American flavors."
Many of those "racy" varieties of apple were grown right here in Boston. They had names like the Porter, the Baldwin, the Pearmain and Dorchester's Tolman Sweet. So what happened to all those apples, and can we get them back? These questions are at the core of Jacobsen's new book," Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics and Little-Known Wonders."
Rowan Jacobsen will be speaking Friday night at the Harvard Book Store, and he'll be taking part in a panel on "Apple Envy" at the Let's Talk About Food Festival on Sept. 27.
9 Things You Didn’t Know About New England's Favorite Autumn Fruit
1. American apples were born in Boston:
Rowan Jacobsen: “The very first orchard in America was planted on Beacon Hill in 1623...The Baldwin was this world conqueror. It started off right outside the city and spread through the city, became the number one apple in Boston by 1800 or so, and by 1850 it was grown throughout the northeast and exported all over the world and there are still people today who, when they taste the Baldwin, to them, that is the essential taste of an apple...It’s a very distinctive note. It’s a little tiny bit winey. It’s definitely a little bit tart. There’s a sweetness there but there’s a lot of tart to go with the sweet. And then there’s kind of a winey touch to it that’s more complex than we tend to find in the supermarket today.”
2. The Roxbury Russet refers to the neighborhood in Boston we're all familiar with:
RJ: "It was actually a seedling from that original 1623 orchard, and it also became one of the most popular apples in New England. It’s a Russet, that refers to that skin, and you might have seen these apples out there in heirloom orchards. It’s almost like a sand papery brown skin on them. And people, when they see it, they tend to steer away from it because it certainly doesn’t look like a Red Delicious or even a Granny Smith. But those Russet apples, they’re harder than other apples, so they’re really crunchy and they have this really nice, kind of a brown sugary flavor to them.”
3. Prohibition dried up the apple varieties:
RJ: “Prohibition...pretty much took out all the apples that were specifically for making into hard cider, people literally chopped down their trees when that was no longer cool.”
4. Industrial agriculture drove away local apples:
RJ: “Out west, especially in Washington state, they started producing these huge, huge orchards of Red Delicious at a very low price and the national distribution chains that were just coming into play in the country, that’s exactly what they wanted: they didn’t want to have to be buying from lots of little local orchards. They wanted one apple they could stock through their whole system. And they did."
5. We wanted redder and less tasty apples:
RJ: “Consumers constantly chose the redder apple over the tastier, uglier apple. And so they gave us what we wanted until we round up with the reddest and least tasty apple of them all, [the Red Delicious].”
6. The apple is our most creative fruit:
RJ: “Every single seed will produce a new variety if you plant it. And apples grow really well throughout New England. So when the colonists came here, they planted tons and tons of seeds. They didn’t all know that they weren’t going to get the same kind of apple. That knowledge wasn’t common. It was this accidental experiment in genetics where suddenly we had tens of thousands of potential new varieties out there. Most of them weren’t very good so nobody ever tried to make more of them.”
7. We’re living in an apple renaissance:
RJ: “New England is...the area that is really leading this renaissance, I think. There are more heirloom orchards out there and pick-your-own orchards with a lot of these old varieties than you find anywhere else. And also hard cider. New England is kind of leading the hard cider renaissance too. So a lot of these varieties that were lost — because these trees can go 100, 200 years and wait to be rediscovered — we didn’t quite lose them. There’s still enough of them out there that now we’re able to get them back.”
8. Cider apples are not for eating fresh:
RJ: “Often the good cider apples are small; they’re almost easier to work with and they have more ratio of skin to flesh, and the skin is where you get the tanons...[Cider apples] taste terrible fresh, but you ferment them and they ferment beautifully into...hard cider from Farnum Hill in Lebanon, New Hampshire. These guys were kind of the first ones on the scene to be doing traditional New England cider. This is a pretty good example of, in 1750, how you would have gotten drunk in Boston.”
9. The odd-looking apples are coming! The odd-looking apples are coming!
RJ: “Tower Hill is a fantastic garden a little farther out, with an amazing selection of maybe 100 varieties of apples. Even Whole Foods right here in Boston is...confident that heirloom apples can sell well now. They’ve actually just asked me to work with them to kind of expand their heirloom program. So, I think throughout New England you’re going to see some weird-looking apples in Whole Foods in the next few years...Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what we see as beautiful might be a little different than what they saw as beautiful when that tree was planted.”
Rowan Jacobsen, James Beard Award-winning writer and author of "Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics and Little-Known Wonders." He tweets @rowanjacobsen.
- "Apples are very long-lived, patient beings, and New England has held onto more of its small farms than most regions of the country. Today, those old orchards and backyard trees are helping to bring some of our oldest apple exemplars back into vogue."
Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Apples
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Brussels sprouts are the best of the cabbages, bite-size and nutty, with a satisfying toothiness to them. They have a bad reputation because for years the ones on the market were terrible, and often terribly cooked. But good ones, braised in a sauce that supports their assertiveness, can be spectacular. This dish is a wonderful mix of sweet, savory, and salty, with lots of crunch. Serve with pork chops, venison, duck breast, or prime rib.
4 bacon slices
24 Brussels sprouts, halved
¼ cup boiled cider or sweet cider
1 medium -large apple, cored and diced*
1 garlic clove, minced
½ cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
*Russets such as Pitmaston Pineapple, St. Edmund’s Russet, and Golden Russet complement the nuttiness of the Brussels sprouts, as does Blenheim Orange. Red-skinned apples add complementary color to the green Brussels sprouts.
- Fry the bacon in a large pan with a lid over medium-low heat until crisp. Rremove the bacon, chop, and set aside.
- Add the Brussels sprouts and the boiled cider to the pan, stir to toss in the bacon fat, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes.
- Add the apple and cook, covered, until the apples and Brussels sprouts are tender, another 4 to 5 minutes.
- Uncover the pan, add the garlic, and cook until the garlic is golden, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the cream, raise the heat to high, and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick and bubbling, just a minute or two. Turn off the heat and add salt and pepper and half the bacon. Toss.
- Serve immediately with the remaining bacon over the top.
Nutty Apple Crisp for a Crowd
Makes 12 servings
Why make small apple crisps when you can make big ones for no extra work? Years ago, I gave up on oats in my crisp toppings--always dry and chewy--and switched to nuts, which make the topping richer, crunchier, and, well, nuttier. Pecans are my nut of choice. (If Europe had had pecans and American walnuts, instead of the other way around, walnuts would still be suspect.) Sliced almonds are also excellent==but add them after you’ve processed the rest of the topping, so they can act as crunchy little wafers. I’ve also decided that crisps are better when the apples are chopped pretty small--it keeps the topping even, which helps cook more uniformly.
8 large apples, cored and diced*
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups pecans
2 teaspoons cinnamon
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold butter, cut into pieces
*You want tart, citrusy varieties, such as Belle de Boskoop, Karmijn de Sonnaville, and Ribston Pippin. Russets, especially Orleans Reinette and Zabergau Reinette, enhance the butty factor, as does Blenheim Orange. As with pie, you get the most intriguing crisps if you mix at least three kinds of apples together.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- In a large bowl, toss the apples with the lemon and granulated sugar. Spread the apples into a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until they resemble coarse meal, just a few seconds. Spread the topping evenly over the apples and bake 45 to 50 minutes, until the topping is mahogany brown.
- Remove from the oven and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.
This article was originally published on September 18, 2014.
This segment aired on September 18, 2014.