Day 8: Apples – Celebrate American Food History

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Folk proverb

Two stories convey the essence of apples to me. The first involves an almost surgical treatment of an apple tree in our front yard:

One autumn day, Dad’s boss – Dr. C. S. Holton – appeared at the back door of our rambling old ex-farm house, its white clapboards sinewy with the original wood, splintered but durable since the late 1800s. He and Dad had decided to graft a number of different apple-tree branches to the immense – and highly productive – apple tree in our front yard. My father, because of his relative youth, elected to climb up the gnarly trunk and eased himself slowly toward each place where the grafted branches would hang, lower rather than higher, for ease of plucking the future fruit, I guess. I watched as he sliced into the bark just so and gingerly attached the new branches with a surgeon’s finesse, easing the pristine progeny into the wounded tree.

Over time, the fledgling branches took root and flowers blossomed, attracting bees and sundry other life forms.

As for the second memory, it’s actually one which I enjoy quite often: the taste of apple butter spread on raisin toast at Waffle House. Yes, I confess. I love Waffle House. And apple butter, too.

The story of apple butter points to a very important aspect of American food history, a factor still in play: immigration.

Early English settlers brought their favorite apple varieties with them to the New World. Apple pie really began as an English specialty, now gone native. Today, apples are “American as apple pie”, thanks to Johnny Appleseed’s efforts. Yes, Virginia, Johnny Appleseed really existed. John Chapman sowed apple seeds from the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio River.

Apples have always been America’s favorite fruit. The United States produces more apples than any other country. Over 7,000 varieties are known in the U.S., but growers only market about 50 varieties. Available year‑round, apples taste best from September through April and keep well without withering when stored in a cool place, with the stem end turned down. Certain varieties cook up better for certain cooking purposes than others: Jonathans make for just plain eating, as do McIntosh and Red Delicious apples. Gravensteins can’t be beat for applesauce, while Granny Smiths take the prize as pie apples.

Although it’s clear that many favorite American recipes for apples are rooted in English traditions, apple butter most likely stems from the Pennsylvania Dutch, who were not Dutch at all, but rather German. It seems that in 1734, a group of German families arrived in America and may account for the tradition of apple butter still celebrated near Philadelphia, Schwenkfelder Day of Remembrance, or Gedächtnestag.

And it takes a certain type of apple to do the job: slightly sour.

Bleach bypass apple still life resize fog
Credit: C. Bertelsen

Apple Butter

From: The Farmer’s Cabinet, and American Herd Book, Volume 3, 1839

Being at the house of a good old German friend in Pennsylvania, in September last, we noticed upon the table what was called apple butter; and finding it an agreeable article, we inquired into the modus operandi in making it.
To make this article according to German law, the host should in the autumn invite his neighbors, particularly the young men and maidens, to make up an apple butter party. Being assembled, let three bushels of fair sweet apples be pared, quartered, and the cores removed. Meanwhile let two barrels of new cider be boiled down to one-half. When this is done, commit the prepared apples to the cider, and henceforth let the boiling go on briskly and systematically. But to accomplish the main design, the party must take turns at stirring the contents without cessation, that they do not become attached to the side of the kettle and be burned. Let this stirring go on till the liquid becomes concrete—in other words, till the amalgamated cider and apples become as thick as hasty pudding—then throw in seasoning of pulverized allspice, when it may be considered as finished, and committed to pots for future use. This is apple butter—and it will keep sweet for very many years. And depend upon it, it is a capital article for the table— very much superior to any thing that comes under the name of apple sauce.

Apple butter rs
Credit: C. Bertelsen

Apple butter captured the flavor of autumn, a prime example of a processed food that’s withstood the passage of time. Cooks in the mountains of Appalachia filled their stack cakes with apple butter or spread their cathead biscuits with it. Another preservation method for apples involved drying cored, sliced apples, but that’s something to talk about in another post.


Old Southern Apples, by Creighton Lee Calhoun (1996)

American Pomology, by J. A. Warder (1867)

In Praise of Apples: a Harvest of History, Horticulture, and Recipes, by Mark Rosenstein (1996)

The Amazing Apple : A History of Apples, by E. D. Blundell (2008)

A Treatise on the Culture of the Apple & Pear and on the Manufacture of Cider and Perry, by T. A. Knight (1797)

Making Apple Butter

Note:  It’s soon to be a big, big day for Gherkins & Tomatoes – on July 28 G&T will celebrate eight (8) years (!) of writing about food and food history. Why, that’s 1,181 posts. Yes, there could – and should – have been more lots more, but we must take into account the time spent writing the mushroom book and other stuff.

To celebrate, I’ve decided to post a recipe a day until July 28, and not just any recipes. No, no quick tricks for the kitchen, no instant no-bake cheesecakes, sorry. Each day I will feature a small insight into American food history.

See the other days:

Day 1: Tuckahoe

Day 2: Oysters

Day 3: Chicken

Day 4: Corn

Day 5: Tomatoes

Day 6: Beef

Day 7: Squirrel