Autumn is officially here and so is apple season! Apples from our local orchards have been available since early September. If you have yet to take a trip to an orchard near you to pick some up, what are you waiting for? Get out there! Experience all the flavors Southern Illinois apples have to offer from sweet and lush to tart and crisp.
Just who do we have to thank for apples, anyway?
It is hard to imagine a time when cultivated land did not exist in our country, but that was certainly the case when our earliest settlers arrived. Beyond scattered Native American plantings of wild crabapples, mulberries, cherries, plums, and persimmons, there were no lush orchards of apple trees awaiting our European settlers. These early arrivals brought with them seeds, cuttings, and small plants that laid the foundation of our modern orchards.
Our early apples, however, were not used for eating. They played another important role: cider. Because of pollution concerns, cider was usually served at meals instead of water, even to children. It became so much a part of our economy that it was sometimes used to pay salaries.
But, what about Johnny Appleseed?
As children, we learned the story of Johnny Appleseed through a nursery rhyme, Disney films, and even a catchy tune. We were taught that he wandered the land planting apple seeds. In some versions, he befriends a wolf, and in others he wears a pot on his head. In nearly all, he sleeps outside under the stars.
What children are taught is a faraway story from John Chapman who grew up in the midst of the Revolutionary War. Chapman was raised on a farm and developed a talent early on as an orchardist. While he did introduce apples to much of the Midwest, his reality was a bit more pragmatic than the legend portrays.
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Frontier law allowed a claim to be laid on land that was developed as a permanent homestead, and this could be done by planting 50 apple trees. Chapman traveled through Pensylvania, Ohio, and on into Illinois planting seeds to begin orchards. He would then sell the land to settlers once it had grown bountiful.
The seeds Chapman planted resulted in apples for making hard cider and applejack. At the time, apples for cider were much more valuable crops than apples for eating. In rural areas, cider still took the place of water because it was safer. Hard cider has deep roots in American history, something that was all but obliterated during prohibition.
Selecting, Storing and Cooking with Apples
When you select apples at the market, choose firm fruits that have little to no soft spots. Smaller apples generally have higher sugar content. Store your apples in a cool dry place. When stored stored in a low-humidity refrigerator crisper drawer, apples can last from four to six weeks. Store them separately from other fruits as apples will hasten the ripening of many fruits
When preparing apples for recipes where the apple will remain raw, toss chopped apples with a little lemon juice or cider vinegar to prevent them from browning. Use crisp varieties for these recipes. Use softer varieties for recipes that call for baking or cooking apples.
Apples are wonderful in sweet desserts. We love applesauce, apple butter, apple pie, and apple dumplings. Experiment with apples in savory dishes, too. Apples and pork are a classic combination. They pair well with butternut squash and pumpkin, too. Apples and sausage are a perfect combination for holiday dressings and stuffings. Shredded kale, Brussels sprouts, apples, and chopped walnuts come together to make a sweetly pungent salad.
Whether you prefer sweet or savory apple recipes, eating them raw, or drinking cider, there is no denying that apples are anchored in American food culture. Now, go grab some local apples!