So, how good were those old-time apples?
Apples that are the most popular today were not popular at the turn of the century. Some of the popular varieties then were Baldwins, Rhode Island Greenings and Grimes Golden. Today, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and McIntosh, in that order, are the most popular selling varieties. In 20 years, it is highly likely that these popular varieties will be replaced by newer varieties, which are being planted in never increasing numbers.
Some apples, such as Northern Spy and Jonathan have stood the test of time, but many older varieties that are worth of cultivation and consumption almost have disappeared because they are unattractive, poor keepers, shy bearers or have other defects that make them unsuitable for commercial growers.
Some old varieties still can be purchased in select markets. Jonathan's, Wolf River, Snows, Golden Russets and Duchess of Oldenberg all are true antiques, although somewhat commonplace. However, there are a number of great old apple varieties that are all but lost to the average consumer. Among the best are:
Tompkins County King - a large, crisp apple with a yellow skin washed with orangish-red. It is excellent for dessert, pies, sauce and cider. It ripens in September and is also excellent for drying. It originated in New York about 1750.
Cox Orange Pippin - This apple is regarded by the British as the finest flavored dessert apple. It is medium sized with a rather dull finish and almost an orangish-red color. It is firm and aromatic with a distinctive flavor. It is an excellent processing apple for desserts, pies, cooking and cider. It keeps from October until January. A friend of mine said it reminds him of a very fine Mondavi wine. It arose from a seedling in England in 1830.
Opalescent - is one of the most beautiful apples in an orchard. It is very large and entirely covered with a smooth dark red skin. It ripens in late fall and once was grown commercially in New England because of its great attractiveness. It originated in Michigan and originally was called Hudson's Pride of Michigan when first introduced in 1880, although some authorities believe it originated in Xenia, Ohio.
Ashmeads Kernel - is a medium sized, greenish yellow fruit with brown blush. It usually is covered with a heavy russet and is not an attractive apple. It is crisp and tart when tree-ripe with peak flavor in early November. It was rated first in quality several years ago in blindfold tests conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society. It makes excellent tasting cider and will keep for three to four months. It was raised by Dr. Ashmead in England in the 18th century and was introduced in the early 1700s.
Mother - is a medium to large fruit with bright red skin. It has a distinctively sweet acid flavor, but its major drawback is its inability to store well. It has almost disappeared in America but still is widely grown in England. It originated in Massachusetts and was introduced in 1840.
Spitzenberg - This apple is crisp, usually medium sized and ripens in October. It was Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple and has been around at least since the 1700s. It is excellent for eating out-of-hand as well as for culinary use.
There are also some old varieties of apples that are not so good. The Ben Davis apple was very popular at the turn of the century and has coarse white flesh. Its major virtue is that it is an exceptional keeper. For many years following the Civil War it was the leading winter apple in the south and central states. Some people have referred to it unaffectionately as a "bog choker" because they thought it was only suitable to feed to hogs and believed even hogs would choke on them.
Maiden Blush - is one of the oldest American apples. It is rather flat and has a thin, but tough, smooth, waxy yellow skin with a crimson blush. It is adequate for cooking, drying or making cider, but leaves something to be desired when eaten fresh. It is very hearty. The original tree traces back to New jersey and was described by a well known orchardist in 1817.
Arkansas Black - This apple, although extremely beautiful and excellent for cider, does not lend itself to either cooking or eating. It originated in Arkansas about 1870 - probably as a seedling of a Winesap. It is the closest thing to buckshot that can be found in an apple and remains extremely hard for months after picking.
Yellow Newton Pippin - This greenish, yellow apple is of medium size and gained notoriety because it was George Washington's favorite apple. Frankly, there is nothing remarkable about the apple either in its eating/cooking qualities or appearance.
The more than 3,000 apple varieties that can be grown in the United States are worth sampling, but many of them are not worth growing when space and time is limited.
In conclusion, the answer to the question 'How good were those old-time apples?" is that some of them were excellent and some, at best, were mediocre.
Most are not any better than some of the newer varieties such as Gala, Jonagold or Empire. Nonetheless, the taste of an apple is just that - it is a matter of taste. If the taste of one of the older varieties brings back fond memories of bygone days and pleasurable experiences, then who is to say they are not better than the present day popular varieties?