VIRGINIA BEACH — Nothing seems more American than apple pie – unless it is either apples packed into school lunches or spiced apple cider on Halloween.
Apples are such a part of our national identity that it’s hard to remember that they’re not native.
The ancestors of the apple varieties that are most commonly cultivated now were brought here by early European settlers, and they were spread throughout West Virginia and Ohio, at that time the Western frontier, by John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.
They were cherished by frontier folk because of their sweetness, which satisfied a natural craving for people who rarely got sugar or honey.
Apples seem so wholesome that I was surprised to read in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire that they were once grown largely to make hard cider, a practice that so enraged early Prohibitionists that some of them were on a mission to destroy every apple orchard in the U.S.
I was also surprised to learn that Johnny Appleseed, whom some consider a saint and others decry as a sinner because his exotic apple trees displaced the native species, was actually just a very shrewd entrepreneur.
He recognized the natural human craving for sweetness and established apple orchards at wilderness outposts that he later sold for a handsome profit to prospective farmers.
Locally, apples are most often associated with Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. I can remember visiting Apple Country once or twice with my family when I was a child, and I remember stopping by a roadside stand that was selling fresh cider. Mountain cider – even the non-alcoholic variety – is strong and bold enough to give a young child a bolt. I can testify that the frontier people must surely have been a tough, fierce lot if they routinely drank hard cider as a part of their daily rations.
Locally, apples haven’t been widely grown, but I do remember that, as a child, I enjoyed the white June apples that grew abundantly on a tree in our yard.
These early-bearing apples produced a pale, yellowish fruit that had a very pleasant, distinctive taste. My girlfriends and I used to sit in the shade underneath the tree for hours on a summer day, reading our library books and munching the apples that fell on the ground. My mother also collected some of them for cooking, but most adults seemed to have little interest in eating them raw.
Red delicious apples were among the most popular when I was growing up, and, as an adult, I continued to select red delicious apples.
Now, local farm markets have introduced us to a wider variety and made Virginia-grown apples more widely available, whether they’re from the mountains or grown locally by the Culliphers.
One year, the Cullipher family grew a vintage apple that was said to be similar to ones grown at Monticello. I found this small, very tart apple to be particularly delicious, and Mike Cullipher said that he may consider growing more vintage apples in the future.
I also have a particular soft spot for the Virginia-born-and-bred ginger gold, partially because of its mellow flavor and partially because of its inspiring backstory.
That apple was cultivated from a small chance apple tree that farmer Clyde Harvey found growing in his Nelson County orchard after Hurricane Camille devastated most of his crop in 1969 and which he named for his wife, Ginger Harvey.
Although apples are wonderful when they’re eaten raw, many people associate them with fall desserts, and it’s true that memories of walking into a warm house on a chilly fall night and smelling the warm, sweet smell of apple pie baking is one of those things that reminds many of us of home.
As a child, I would hang around my grandmother while she rolled her piecrust and sliced the apples, and I was always rewarded when she slipped me one of the apple slices that she’d rolled in the sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Unfortunately, rolling out pie crusts isn’t my strong point. Although I still bake with apples, I’m more likely to make cobblers or crisps than pies.
The author is a regular contributor to The Independent News. Her journalism also has appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.
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