Apples in American History

04 Aug 2009

Exactly where the apple started out from has long been a matter of contention among people who have studied these things, but it appears that the ancestor of Malus domestica, the domestic apple, is a wild apple that grows in the mountains of Kazakhstan.

In some places there, Malus sieversii, as it is known to botanists, is the dominant species in the forest, growing to a height of 20 meters, each fall throwing off a cornucopia of odd, apple-like fruits ranging in size from marbles to softballs, in color from yellow and green to red and purple. I’ve tried to imagine what May in such a forest must look — and smell! — like, or October, with the forest floor a nubby carpet of reds, golds and greens.

The silk route traverses some of these forests and it seems likely that travelers passing through would have picked the biggest and tastiest of these fruits to take with them on their journey west. Along the way seeds were dropped, wildlings sprouted, and Malus hybridized freely with related species, such as European crab apples, eventually producing millions of novel apple types all through Asia and Europe. Most of these would have yielded unpalatable fruit, though even these trees would have been worth growing for cider or forage.

True domestication had to await the invention of grafting by the Chinese. Sometime in the second millennium BC, the Chinese discovered that a slip of wood cut from a desirable tree could be notched into the trunk of another tree; once this graft ‘took’, the fruit produced on new wood growing out from that juncture would share the characteristics of its more desirable parent. This technique is what eventually allowed the Greeks and Romans to select and propagate the choicest specimens. At this point, the apple seems to have settled down for a while. According to Pliny, the Romans cultivated 23 different varieties of apples, some of which they took with them to England. The tiny, oblate Lady Apple, which still shows up in market at Christmastime, is thought to be one of these.

As Thoreau suggested in an 1862 essay in praise of wild apples, the most ‘civilized’ of trees followed the westward course of empire, from the ancient world to Europe, and then on to America with the early settlers. Much like the Puritans, who regarded their crossing to America as a kind of baptism or rebirth, the apple couldn’t cross the Atlantic without changing its identity — a fact that encouraged generations of Americans to hear echoes of their own story in the story of this fruit.

The apple in America became a parable. Everyone knows that the settlement of the West depended on the rifle and the ax, yet the seed was no less instrumental in guaranteeing Europeans’ success in the New World. The Europeans brought with them to the frontier a kind of portable ecosystem — the grasses their livestock needed to thrive, herbs to keep themselves healthy, Old World fruits and flowers to make life comfortable — that allowed them to re-create their accustomed way of life. This biological settlement of the West often went on beneath the notice of the settlers themselves, who brought along weed seeds in the cracks of their boot soles, grass seeds in the feedbags of their horses, and microbes in their blood and gut. (None of these introductions passed beneath the notice of the Native Americans, however.)

The earliest immigrants to America had brought grafted Old World apple trees with them, but in general these trees fared poorly in their new home. Harsh winters killed off many of them outright; the fruit of others was nipped in the bud by late-spring frosts unknown in England. But the colonists also planted seeds, often saved from apples eaten during their Atlantic passage, and these seedling trees, called ‘pippins’, eventually prospered (especially after the colonists imported honeybees to improve pollination, which had been spotty at first). Ben Franklin reported that by 1781 the fame of the Newton Pippin, a homegrown apple discovered in a cider orchard in Flushing, New York, had already spread to Europe.

There was an old tradition in Protestant northern Europe linking the grape, which flourished all through Latin Christendom, with the corruptions of the Catholic Church, while casting the apple as the wholesome fruit of Protestantism. “The desire of the Puritan, distant from help and struggling for bare existence, to add the Pippin to his slender list of comforts, and the sour ‘syder’ to cheer his heart and liver must be a fortunate circumstance,” a speaker told a meeting of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1885.

Americans were indeed strongly inclined to cider, an inclination that accounts for the high esteem in which the apple was held in the colonies and on the frontier. In fact, there was hardly anything else to drink. The sweetest fruit makes the strongest cider, and up until Prohibition in America, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider.

Just about the only reason to plant an orchard of seedling apples would have been its intoxicating harvest of drink, available to anyone with a press and a barrel. Allowed to ferment for a few weeks, pressed apple juice yields a mildly alcoholic beverage with about half the strength of wine. For something stronger, the cider can then be distilled into brandy or simply frozen; the intensely alcoholic liquid that refuses to ice is called applejack — cider frozen to thirty degrees below zero yields an applejack of 66 proof.

Virtually every homestead in America had an orchard from which literally thousands of gallons of cider were made every year. In rural areas, cider took the place not only of wine and beer, but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water. Indeed, in many places, cider was consumed more freely than water, even by children, since, insofar as it was more sanitary, it was arguably the healthier beverage.

Cider became so indispensable to rural life that even those who railed against the evil of alcohol made an exception for cider, and the early prohibitionists succeeded mainly in switching drinkers over from grain to apple spirits. Eventually they would attack cider directly and launch their campaign to chop down apple trees, but up until the end of the nineteenth century cider continued to enjoy the theological exemption the Puritans had contrived for it.

It wasn’t until this century that the apple acquired its reputation for wholesomeness: ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ was a marketing slogan dreamed up by growers concerned that temperance would cut into sales. In 1900, the horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey wrote that, ‘the eating of the apple (rather than the drinking of it) has come to be paramount’, but for the two centuries before that, whenever an American extolled the virtues of the apple, whether it was John Winthrop or Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ward Beecher or John Chapman, their contemporaries would probably have smiled knowingly, hearing in their words a distinct Dionysian echo that we are apt to miss.

When Emerson, for instance, wrote that ‘man would be more solitary, less friended, less supported, if the land yielded only the useful maize and potato, withheld this ornamental and social fruit’, his readers understood it was the support and sociability of alcohol he had in mind.

Article first published in Slow 50

Michael Pollan is an American author, columnist, activist, and professor of journalism

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