One of the most charming of American tall tales is the story of Johnny Appleseed. Many versions exist, but one of the nicest is Steven Kellogg’s picturebook. [Johnny Appleseed: A tall tale retold and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Morrow Junior Books, 1988] Kellogg’s colourful illustrations bring the story of John Chapman to life. There really was a Johnny Appleseed. He was born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1774. He left home as a young man and finally found his way west to Ohio, still a wilderness frontier. There, he began his life’s work, planting apple orchards.
Johnny cleverly realized that as settlers arrived on the frontier and began to build homesteads, there would be a market for apple trees. Indeed, a law required settlers to plant fruit trees on their property as part of their commitment to the new land. Once Ohio began to become “crowded”, Johnny moved on to the wilds of Indiana, where he continued to clear land and plant orchards. Johnny never settled down himself, but led a rough, outdoors life. Gradually, stories and legends about his adventures and deeds also took root. When Johnny Appleseed died, in 1845, he left a significant estate, some 22 parcels of land, planted with orchards.
As his name suggests, Johnny Appleseed planted, not grafted apple trees as nurserymen do now, but apple seeds. Apple trees don’t grow true to seed. That is an apple tree grown from seed can be quite unlike its parent. As Michael Pollan points out in his book The Botany of Desire, by spreading apple seeds across the frontier, John Chapman gave the apple the gift of diversity. He made it possible for all sorts of apples to grow, and those trees best suited to the climate of America were then propagated by farmers. Most of the trees that John grew wouldn’t have had the plump, juicy fruit we munch on now. Rather, many would have been small, bitter apples, not good eating, but fine for making cider. As Pollan notes, what John Chapman really brought to pioneer settlers was the gift of alcohol.
At one time, cider was a very popular drink in America. Even children drank cider, as it was sometimes safer than the water, which might be polluted. Cider could be cheaply produced by anyone with enough space to grow a few apple trees. Prohibition and the temperance movement changed all that. While beer and spirits rebounded after the end of prohibition, cider never regained its earlier popularity in America.
The first time I drank cider was in England, where it remains popular and is readily available. Indeed, my old grannie introduced me to cider as it was her preferred drink. Cider is probably the easiest alcoholic beverage for a new drinker to enjoy. It has a pleasant, mild flavour and an alcohol content similar to or a bit higher than beer. Today, cider is fairly easy to come by in Ontario, but in spite of the fact that there are lots of apples grown here, the cider is usually an import from England. Strongbow is quite common, although there are a couple of other brands available.
The only Canadian brand regularly available is Growers, which is produced in British Columbia. It is made with Granny Smith apples, which is a bit ironic as Granny Smith is an Australian apple. Growers is a very sweet, sparkling cider and is quite like drinking pop, apart from the 7% alcohol content.
There is a bit of a cider renaissance underway, and perhaps more varieties of cider will be available in the future. One that is produced not too far from here is Waupoos Premium Cider. It is more like the British ciders than Growers is. Waupoos is produced in Prince Edward County, near Picton, Ontario. For more on cider, visit The Palate Jack.