March 11 was the 240th anniversary of the death of John Chapman, called Johnny Appleseed in American folklore.
Apples are at the, well, core of much of what we celebrate in New York, upstate and downstate. And John Chapman is responsible for many of the apple orchards in the American Northeast and Central states, so we thank him.
There’s a reason New York City is called “The Big Apple.” New York apples are world renowned, a fact I was unaware of until we moved from the West Coast, believing that Oregon and Washington were the centers of appledom in America.
Our orchards were young then and in need of pruning, but after a few years, the trees overwhelmed our capacity for pies, applesauce or just eating off the tree. We bought a single-tub cider smusher that had a manual chopper-upper and smusher-downer (these are not the technical terms, but we were city folk).
This exercise took more energy than was available, so we didn’t make much cider. When we cleared to the pond, we discovered another very old orchard, and locals called the fruit heritage, deer or Johnny Appleseed apples.
I don’t know if Chapman ever came to New York, but he was all around us, if only in spirit.
Then a new neighbor asked my husband to help prune his trees, and in the process of looking for tools, they discovered a mid-1800s two-barrel cider press in the shed that could be hooked up to a motor. It belonged to the former owner, who said we could fix it up and use it. The sturdy metal parts were serviceable, but most of the wood parts were rotted, so we replaced them. We later bought the press, a real historic jewel.
The first year we hooked it up to an old tractor with a very long belt, an OSHA nightmare, but it worked like a charm. We made nearly 80 gallons of cider with the neighbors, who brought their apples and kids to take part in what ended up being a regular event when it was a Good Year for apples.
Their kids helped with the tasks, far away from that belt and the vicious-looking wheels and gears, and they all took home much more than they brought, which was just fine with us. We now use a smaller (and safer) electric motor.
Over the years, many neighborhood families have joined in, and their children of all ages have had as much fun as we have, doing an old-timey farm task that gives much satisfaction. The gathering of apples, the preparation, finding and washing bottles for the cider, running a surprisingly smooth ancient machine, dealing with the pomace (the stuff left over after you mash the juice out), cleaning up and then pasteurizing the cider makes for a full day.
The pomace is a favorite treat for our chickens and turkeys, the neighbor’s pigs and horses, and finally to the garden as mulch and rich organic material for next season’s vegetables.
Group activities like this, such as quilting bees and stuffing envelopes, encourage conversation of a very different sort than cocktail parties. You find out things about each other you had no idea were there. The small kids quickly sort themselves out as leaders, workers and clowns, the big kids talk about school and their activities with surprising candor, and the grownups speak of themselves in a way that would be rude if you asked.
The kids listen to the adults talk and learn things they would never have heard otherwise. The sense of community is overwhelming, and the generational communication is one that is too often lost these days of isolated mealtimes, texting, video games, iPods and other technological media that don’t bring people together, face to face, just talking. And laughing.
Isn’t it ironic that the Apple corporation and its Macintosh products, so responsible for that isolation, were named for a summer job in an orchard?
This year we should salute John Chapman. He has become the stuff of legend, probably best described by Michael Pollan in his book “The Botany of Desire,” as “bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.”
Gift of sweetness
Chapman also brought the gift of sweetness to the settlers, and a model of farming and conservation that is still valid. Since apples and pears were not native to America (they were brought here by Europeans), settlers were required by law to plant apple and pear orchards to uphold their right of claimed land.
Chapman was also a Swedenborgian minister, and his traveling hymn is still used in many American households before meals. Some of the words are “. . . I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the apple seed.”
In 1966, the U.S. Postal Service issued a five-cent stamp commemorating Johnny Appleseed, and both March 11 and Sept. 26 (his death and birth dates) are sometimes celebrated as Johnny Appleseed Day.
This month, we will lift a glass of cider to his memory, and next September, if it’s another good Year of the Apple, we’ll do another pressing, with neighbors bringing apples and taking cider home. I recommend you do the same.
Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.