Editor’s note: We interviewed Vermonter and James Beard Award-Winning Author Rowan Jacobsen in the Autumn 2014 issue of Vermont Life about his latest book, “Apples of Uncommon Character.” The following is an excerpt from his work.
Ten years ago, my wife and I bought a neglected 1840s farmhouse in Calais, Vermont. For my wife, the attraction was the wide, worn floorboards and the classic Cape lines. For me, it was the four acres of meadows. Both of us liked the sense of continuity, the fact that you could look at any of the old maps in the town clerk’s office and find our little black square with a name penciled beside it. S Laird on the 1858 Beers Atlas; TJ Porter on the 1895. Although we hadn’t known any of the previous owners, that sense of continuity was particularly strong on the day in September when we closed on the house. We drove to the house and walked around, pinching ourselves. It was crisp and sunny, blustery with the first hints of fall, and the line of gnarled trees on the east side of the house were sporting colorful orbs of fruit. Although I hadn’t noticed when we’d first looked at the house during summer, they were all apple trees.
I had grown up in Vermont in the 1970s, where I’d learned that the McIntosh was the be-all and end-all of apples. Although it was clearly a step up from the Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples in the supermarket, I still thought the mushy, thick-skinned Mac was pretty awful, and I’d crossed apples off my life list.
But the apples hanging in these trees didn’t look like any I’d ever seen in a store. In one tree, they were large, round, and striped red and yellow like little beach balls. In another, they were brown and fuzzy, more like miniature Asian pears than what I thought an apple was supposed to be. I tried one. It was strangely dry, yet very sweet, crunchy, and nutty. A third tree was full of misshapen fruits speckled with red and orange over a background swirl of greens and yellows. I picked one of these, found a relatively un-scabby section, and bit into it. Juice exploded into my mouth, fragrant with cinnamon and spice. It was heavenly, and I realized right then and there that I’d been missing out.
That fall, driving the back roads of Calais, I began to notice that an extraordinary number of the trees along the roadsides were wild or abandoned apples. Every few hundred yards, the road would be scattered with little green apples, or big yellow ones, or nearly black ones. I took to sampling every tree I could reach. Quite a few were spitters, so sour and astringent that I couldn’t even pretend to enjoy them, but a significant minority were not. Some tasted like pineapple, some like anise, and they were so much more interesting than apples I’d tasted before that I couldn’t believe it. The world was littered with fascinating fruit! Free for the taking! It was as if an apple-centric civilization had passed from existence, and I was living amid the ruins.
Which was, in a sense, exactly what had happened. Apple culture was a huge part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American life. There were few national apples, but endless regional ones, each adapted to the local climate and needs, iconic apples like Rhode Island Greening and Roxbury Russet in New England, Newtown Pippin in New York and Pennsylvania, Winesap and Hewe’s Crab in the Southeast; Black Twig and Arkansas Black in the Mississippi River Valley; Ben Davis and Rome Beauty in the Midwest; Sierra Beauty and Gravenstein on the West Coast. Each one had been propagated because it did something superb. Some came ripe in July, some in November. Some held their shape in pies. Some started off hard and sour, but sweetened outrageously after a few months in your root cellar. Some had purple skin so full of tannins that eating one was like biting into a bar of soap, but if you pressed it and let the juice ferment in your basement all winter, it produced a dry, fragrant cider—the default buzz of agrarian America.
The New York minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, whose delightful essay on apple pie can be sampled in small servings throughout this book, described a typical mid-nineteenth-century cellar thus: “On the east side stood a row of cider barrels; for twelve or twenty barrels of cider were a fit provision for the year,—and what was not consumed for drink was expected duly to turn into vinegar, and was then exalted to certain hogsheads kept for the purpose. But along the middle of the cellar were the apple-bins; and when the season had been propitious, there were stores and heaps of Russets, Greenings, Seeknofurthers, Pearmains, Gilliflowers, Spitzenbergs, and many besides, nameless, but not virtueless.”
The flavors of these apples ran the gamut, from lemon tart to pumpkin sweet, with lots of citrus, pineapple, and spice notes to bolster that classic