New England’s First Cultivated Apple Variety?

When Puritans landed at present-day Charlestown in Massachusetts Bay they discovered they already had an English neighbor across the Charles River, living on the spit of land which would become Boston. William Blaxton (aka Blackstone) had established himself on Beacon Hill several years before. Blackstone invited the newcomers over across to his side, where he had established a farm and an apple orchard. It was a decision he seems to have eventually regretted, as he soon grew tired of Puritan intolerance, and moved to Rhode Island. The apples Blaxton grew on Beacon Hill were called Yellow Sweeting, and later, after his relocation, became widely known as the Rhode Island Greening. I will step out on an apple-tree limb and declare them to be the oldest apple cultivar to be planted in New England. Please feel free to dissent, and share any information you may have about varieties with a stronger claim to that title. Learn more about the Rhode Island Greening and other varieties on the Orange Pippin blog.  Adam’s Apples also has a nice review of the Greening.  Learn more about how people used it in the past at Susan McLellan Plaisted‘s wonderful Bites of Food History blog.

Polynesian crossings and the sweet potato

Historians often refer to the transfers of plants, animals, and diseases between “the Old

World” (Eurasia-Africa) and “the New World” (the Americas) after 1492 as “the Columbian Exchange.”  These exchanges, which included food plants like maize (from the Americas) and cultivated apples (from Eurasia-Africa) had far-reaching consequences for people all over the globe, and Columbus gets credit (or blame) for this not because he was known to be the first to bridge these two isolated landmasses for thousands of years, but because his 1492 expedition was the beginning of regular and sustained contacts between these worlds.  We have conclusive evidence of a Viking crossing and short-lived colony in the 11th century at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and there are many other claims of earlier maritime crossings, each supported with different degrees of evidence.  Now studies of plant genetics on sweet potatoes gathered from Pacific islands by Captain Cook back in 1769 are providing more evidence that Polynesian peoples may have made sea crossings to the Americas thousands of years before Columbus.  Check out this story from NPR’s the Salt for more details on this fascinating new development.  (And thanks to my friend Bernice Melvin for tipping me off to this story.)

Brief Review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in Publisher’s Weekly

A brief review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in Publisher’s Weekly last week.  Here is the full text:

johnny appleseed coverThe myth of Johnny Appleseed comprises some of the odder elements of the American origin story, but as Kerrigan, Professor of American History at Muskingum University, shows, the real John Chapman was a complicated figure whose journeys highlighted major trends in the spread westward. Acknowledging that “most details of Chapman’s life escape us,” Kerrigan analyzes various oral traditions of Chapman’s life and actual evidence of his presence through shopkeepers’ ledgers and county land records. He charts Chapman’s course from childhood in Puritan Yankee Massachusetts, through his youthful wanderings in western Pennsylvania, to the semi-nomadic existence of his Ohio adulthood. Though the exact reasons Chapman headed west remain unclear, Kerrigan asserts that the Old World apple tree “plant[ed] European ideas of property on the landscape,” and it’s likely Chapman was replicating his forefathers’ pattern of settlement in an attempt to achieve Puritan social standing. Well-versed in theology, Chapman also possessed many quirky personal habits, yet contrary to myth, he wasn’t the “clean-living vegetarian who never carried a gun.” By following Chapman across the frontier, Kerrigan demonstrates the harsh realities of frontier life and the rapid pace of change in the new lands; a welcome perspective that illuminates a crucial, but oft-overlooked period of American history. (Dec)

A Brief History of the Irish Cider Apple

White Moss – cider apple. Photo by Mark Jenkinson

White Moss – cider apple. Photo by Mark Jenkinson

I recently discovered the blog Cider Ireland, which has kept me informed on the past and present story of the cider apple on the Emerald Isle.  Contributor Mark Jenkinson informs us that references to apples go back 5000 years in Ireland, and apple cultivation began more than 1000 years ago.  This tidbit from his essay, “A Brief History of Apples and Cider Making in Ireland,” gives us a clue as to the value of apple trees in Medieval Ireland:

“In the 7th and 8th centuries AD the ancient Irish law tracts or Brehon Laws classed the Apple tree among the ‘seven nobles of the woods’ along with Ash, Oak, Hazel, Holly, Scots pine and Yew and they distinguished between wild and cultivated apple trees indicating that sweeter more palatable apples were already being grown at that time. The fine for cutting down one of these trees was 5 milk cows and double that if the tree belonged to a chieftain…… that time, a King’s ransom to say the least !”

I plan to make tasting some of the new Irish craft ciders a priority on my next trip to Ireland!

On Making Something from Nothing

A violin made from trash recovered from a landfill in Cateura, Paraguay.

A violin made from trash recovered from a landfill in Cateura, Paraguay.

The lectionary gospel text for Sunday, January 16, 2013 was the story from John 2 about Jesus turning water into wine.  My pastor, who also happens to be my wife, included this trailer from the upcoming film Landfill Harmonic in a sermon on the vast material disparities between the rich and the poor in this world transformed by global capitalism. That many people sustain life by gleaning the discards of others–living atop urban landfills on the outskirts of some of the world’s largest cities–is a powerful example of this disparity.  While researching and writing Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard I spent a great deal of time trying to understand the relationship between frugality and material prosperity as market capitalism penetrated deep into the North American interior.  Was John Chapman’s choice to embrace a life of radical frugality a personal protest against the new materialism of his age? When John Chapman’s neighbors retold stories of his radical frugality–his determination to dress himself and feed himself from the discards of others, was he the butt of their joke, or an object of admiration?  I intend to continue to examine the idea of frugality in future posts, but today I’ll just share this video clip about people for whom living on the discards of other is not a choice, but a necessity of their circumstances.  What they make of those circumstances is nothing short of heroic.


Film recommendation: Adam’s Apples

Adams_Aebler_(2005)What if Quentin Tarantino were Danish, and decided to make a film about the Book of Job?  He might make this film.  I absolutely loved this dark but thoughtful comedy, in which a Lutheran minister, a neo-Nazi, a kleptomaniac, alcoholic ex-tennis star, and an Arab gas station robber share living quarters in a rural church.  The film also features a beleaguered apple tree, and the Bee Gee’s classic, “How Deep is Your Love?”  Will make you laugh, and reflect.  Available on Nextflix streaming.