Apples of our ancestors

Surprise Apples"What is more melancholy than an old apple tree that lingers about the spot where once stood a homestead, but where there is now only a ruined chimney rising out of a grassy and weed grown cellar? They offer their fruits to every wayfarer. " - Nathania/ Hawthorne

Apples were brought to the colonies from Europe in the 1600s. Over the next few centuries a number of apple varieties arose from apple seeds planted in Eastern and Midwest states. By 1872, Charles Downing's classic, Fruit and Fruit Trees of America, listed close to 1,100 different apples that had originated in America.

Cider also became the most popular drink in America during that time. By 1775 one of every 10 farms in New England owned and operated its own cider mill. One report states that i.n the mid 1700s in Massachusetts alone, approximately 35 gallons of cider were consumed annually per person. Usually the very best ground next to a homestead was reserved for fruit trees, with apples making up most of the orchards.

Of the old varieties, there are two that seem to be the most requested and best remembered. The two varieties are Snow and Northern Spy. Snow apples have a beautiful white flesh, but few other virtues. Older people sometimes recall eating them with popcorn in the winter. Northern Spys are a favorite for baking-maybe because people remember their ancestors insisting on using them for pies and other culinary uses.

Spys are a very firm apple when cooked. It is interesting to note that in a blind. taste test last year by a friend who baked two apple pies, one with Spys and one with Wolf Rivers (which I believe tastes like wet sawdusteaten out of hand), the pie with Wolf Rivers was the unanimous choice of those who tasted them.

Some of the best descriptions of apples grown in the Great Lakes Bay Region during the early 1900s come from Herbert H. Dow, founder of the Dow Chemical Company. Dow planted a huge orchard that included almost 80 varieties of apples. In his pamphlet, "Apples and their Adaptation to the Light Soils of Michigan," Dow said that of all the apple
varieties he grew, he recommended only six or seven for our region. His recommended varieties follow.

Grimes Golden - From 1804, it was the Golden Delicious of its day. Its main drawback is its greenish-yellow color, which does not sell well in the commercial market.

Snow or Fameuse - Introduced in the United States in 1739, it's a small apple with white flesh.

Wealthy- Discovered in 1860, it ripens early in September and bears heavily. Several of the Wealthy trees in my orchard fell over last year because of the weight of the apples. It's excellent for all culinary purposes.

Jonathan - From 1826, it's a good all-purpose apple and bears heavily, but at best, it's medium in size. Each year the cider that wins the state cider contest usually consists of 20 to 30 percent of juice from this variety.

Northern Spy- From 1800, this apple, as noted by Dow, takes 10 to 12 years to bear fruit. It took the Northern Spys in my orchard exactly 16 years to bear. That fact alone makes it impractical for commercial growers.

Mother - From 1840, this is a very beautiful, late-ripening apple that has all but disappeared. Dow thought the apple was superior to the Spitzenburg, which was Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple for eating out of hand.

Wagner- From 1791, this very large apple is thought to be a parent of Northern Spy. It's a prolific bearer and good keeper. Its main use is for baking and not for eating out of hand.

Mcintosh -This apple, from 1811,is an apple that people seem to really like or don't like. Few people are neutral about it. I don't like it unless it has hung on the tree for an extra two weeks. If it has, then it's loaded with flavor. Mcintosh cooks to mush, but adds great flavor to any apple dish. I recommend combining Mcintosh with a different variety, such as Cortland, to give the dish some body.

Mcintosh remained one of the best-selling apples throughout the 20th century.

Old, abandoned orchards always bring two questions to mind. Who planted them and what varieties do the old trees represent? There is a certain sadness associated with these relics of the past.

So how good were those old varieties? The short answer is that some were excellent and some were awful. Some old varieties that anyone planting an orchard of antique apple varieties should not be without include Spitzenburg,Yellow Newton Pippen, Opalescent, 20 Ounce, Golden Nugget, Golden Russet,Wealthy,Wagner, and Jonathan. The older varieties of baking apples are superior to the newer ones, with the possible exception of Spigold, which was developed in 1962.

It's safe to say that for eating out of hand, none of the older varieties is any better than the newer varieties such as Honeycrisp and Tango Sweet. But the taste of an apple is just that-it's a matter of taste. Who is to say that an old variety that brings back fond memories is any worse than other varieties?