Monday, November 22, 2010


It is with a certain amount of conceit that we assert that something is “as American as apple pie”, and any patriotic Englishman cannot be blamed for challenging that particular bit of “colonial arrogance”. In actual fact, from the landing of the Mayflower onward, the old English tradition of pie-making – and especially apple pie-making - has connected us as surely as any pedigree chart to our English roots. That being said ( in the interest of historic niceties), I will hasten to add that here in “the New World” apples, their propagation and appreciation – and yes, even their elevation to the pinnacle of pie-heaven – have written a more glowing chapter in pomological history than anywhere else. And where else could a common fellow such as John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) cut such a botanical swath across the land and its history.
In truth, apples filled a primary niche in the colonial food chain because of the everyday need for the “cider” which could be pressed from this juice-laden fruit. European settlers brought with them a widespread and well-founded distrust of drinking water; water being believed to be the source of almost all sickness and disease. (In fact the reason the “Pilgrims” came ashore at Cape Cod arose from the end of their shipboard supply of beer – a “safe” beverage made from fermenting grain).
In the 1700s a typical Pennsylvania family put up fifteen to forty barrels of cider each year, and in order to claim a “homestead” in colonial Virginia, a settler was required first to plant an orchard. Everyone drank cider as a basic beverage, first from fresh pressings, and long term because of the natural fermentation process which gave it a long shelf life, reaching across a long, often-bitter winter to a new spring.
The qualities looked for in a cider apple included juiciness, a balance of sweetness and tartness, and a high tannin level. Very few apple varieties possess enough of these qualities to be a great stand-alone cider apple, unless you count Tremblett’s Bitter, Kingston Black or New Foxwhelp, still grown in England. In fact, the U.K. lays claim to “The Long Ashton Research Station” in Bristol, England, where the continued pursuit of the perfect cider is still ongoing.
In the U.S. today’s serious cider-makers usually go for a combination such as a Red or Gold Delicious for sweetness, Jonathan or Winesap for tartness, and a crab apple such as Hysop for a touch of tannin and color. One of New England’s best makers uses a blend of up to 13 varieties with McIntosh playing the lead role. Among the heirlooms still around, the Golden Russet would probably be regarded as the finest single American cider apple of all time.
When it comes to apple pie, some of the same qualities apply, but with great weight being given to cooking characteristics. The most desired pie apples are those which retain their shape in cooking, refusing to turn mushy. My first choice is Newtown Pippin, with Red Astrachan and Northern Spy close behind. Among supermarket varieties available today, we would combine Golden Delicious, Rome Beauty, and either Gala or Jonagold. Our basic rule always calls for a mix of three varieties. And given our Vermont roots, a piece of apple pie is always accompanied by a wedge of well-aged white cheddar cheese warmed to room temperature.
For drying, I prefer Wealthy, Gravenstein, Wolf River, or – in a pinch – Golden Delicious. It takes a high flavor level to survive the drying process, and many of the “old timers” favored in the past are no longer available.
For eating out of hand, the decision is highly personal. Of the newer choices available today, I give high marks to HoneyCrisp, Jonagold, Fuji and Mutsu. Among the heirlooms, I vote for Spitzenburg, Bramley’s Seedling, Ashmead’s Kernel, Cox Orange Pippin and Golden Russet, to name just a small handful. So high on our list that we just today ordeerd a box of them from an Indiana orchard is the venerable Northern Spy, at one time the number three apple across America, and one of the few that is good in cider, supreme in pie, and a Prince among long-keepers. Why does such a gem fall from favor you might ask ? As so often is the case, the tree is not always an annual bearer, takes several years to enter production and does not take kindly to machine-picking and handling.
As I savored the seductive sweetness of a Pitmaston Pineapple, (a small, unhandsome but wondrously-blessed apple of English origin), recently, I thought of the challenge to language faced by anyone attempting to find words to describe taste. Thus apple tasters employ such terms as: vinous; aromatic;sprightly;complex;pear-like;tangy;spicey;brisk;acidulous;winey;flowery as well as such standards as sweet, tart and acidic. The mouth-feel of an apple might be described as firm, crisp, snapping, breaking, crunchy or tender. And so, a lexicon as tantalizing as the alphabet itself, from an apple called Akane to another known as Zabergau Reinette tests both pallet and tongue.

A tiny apple with a long history shows up as an adornment on Christmas wreaths and decorations each year in December. America’s “Christmas Apple” is known as “Lady”, but in the France of King Louis XIII, it was “pomme d’Api”, and may even have been celebrated in ancient Rome itself.

An amalgam of 3 kinds of apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and tender, flakey crust, a hand-crafted apple pie has distinguished the American dessert table since colonial times.
Al Cooper Photos


Sometime around 1792, Mary Anne Brailsford transplanted a seedling she had started from a pit to a sunny spot in the backyard of her cottage in Notinghampshire, little knowing that fruit from that chance tree and its subsequent offspring would one day become one of England’s most celebrated contributions to the world of appledom. I said a silent “thank you” to Miss Brailsford this past week, as I once again became reacquainted with the heady tartness and juicy interior of the apple the world knows as Bramley’s Seedling, (named for the butcher who later occupied that humble cottage on Church Street in Southwell, U.K.).
The designation “chance” in my introductory sentence is important. In the natural order of things, the seed of an apple tree will not reproduce its parent’s kind; only by cutting a branch – or sion – from the original tree can genetic continuity be assured. Planting a seed, or pip from an apple is a sheer biologic gamble, almost always ending five or six years later in disappointment. But. . . every now and then, nature smiles on the adventurous propagator, and something important emerges. In colonial America, almost every neighborhood and dirt road saw such “accidents” taking root, and the young nation savored, shared and celebrated worthwhile apple adaptations numbering in the thousands. My own humble young orchard is itself the residence to a dozen of the most favored “heirlooms”, and each autumn, I send away for “samplings” from other antique growers around the country. This year, a juicy Bramley’s Seedling kept company with a Roxbury Russet, an Ashmead’s Kernel (another British classic), and nine other noteworthy, but little-known examples of pomological diversity. Each one with a story of its own.


History is written in more than just books,
It’s more than mere dates on some page.
It’s found in the slates of a crumbling stone wall,
On a gravestone all lichened with age.
It perfumes the springtime where old lilacs grow,
And hides in the dark of gray barns.
It rings from the tower of a white-steepled church;
Colors afghans crocheted from old yarns.

But the history which speaks to me over the years,
Hangs from branches where sweet zephyrs blow;
Where the orchards of yesterday cling to a hill;
Where the RUSSETS and PEARMAINS still grow.
The taste of a MAIDEN’S BLUSH turns back the clock
To a time when fine apples were treasured,
When COX ORANGE PIPPINS and seedlings called BRAMLEYS
Were tested, and savored and measured.

Like an archival “Atlas” three centuries long,
Their names ring in spell-binding prose:
The cider-man’s friend, SOPS OF WINE;
Jefferson’s SPITZENBURG, crimson and gold,

Not all of our national treasures,
Are found on Smithsonian shelves.
Not all of our past is recorded in words,
Into which future scholars will delve.
For the history which speaks to me over the years
Hangs from branches where sweet zephyrs blow;
Where the orchards of yesterday cling to a hill;
Where the RUSSETS and PEARMAINS still grow.

By Al Cooper

Considered one of the world’s most beautiful apples, with a shiny, porcelain-like exterior, the “Kandil Sinap” is also one of the most unusual. In a world of orbicular shapes, this “heirloom” from Turkey is tall and conical.

An 1875 Wisconsin seedling, the huge “Wolf River” is a sentimental favorite. It dominated a hillside pasture on our family farm in Vermont, and was much loved by my father. My mother once made an apple pie from just one of these two-pound giants, and happily, I own one of its offspring today.
Photos by Al Cooper

Monday, November 15, 2010

CLINTON’S FOLLY The "Big Dig" That Changed America

A color postcard from the 1930s depicts one of several river boats that plied the Hudson in an earlier day. The author’s interest in river history dates back to a day trip on the DeWitt Clinton in 1939.

While the idea began with George Washington, and was always in the back of the mind of each succeeding President, it was not until a New Yorker named DeWitt Clinton came along that anyone dared to do something about it. The idea was to build a canal - a manmade waterway - which would connect New York and the East to the Great Lakes and what was known as the Northwest Territory. There were many reasons to support those who said it either couldn’t be done or the cost would be too high for the young nation to bear. What’s more, it was argued, it couldn’t earn enough to pay for itself in the long run. In 1817, there were no civil engineers in the United States and no School of Engineering from which to draw an alumni with the kind of skills such a monumental task would require. In fact the surveying of the proposed route was carried out by two amateurs, one a Judge, the other a young school teacher who had never touched a surveying tool before the day they started to measure.
The proposed route would begin from the headwaters of the Hudson River near Troy and Albany in upstate New York, and traverse 363 miles of virtual wilderness, including the imposing granite Niagara escarpment, terminating at the pioneer town of Buffalo, and connecting with Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. A seemingly insurmountable engineering challenge arose from the fact that the landmass over which the construction would take place involved a rise of 600 feet. Since the technology of the day could lift water no more than twelve feet, at least 50 locks would have to be engineered, constructed and operated; a daunting feat of masonry enterprise. President Thomas Jefferson had called the whole idea “a little short of madness”.
DeWitt Clinton is an American Original too much overlooked in our history books; a politician who hated party politics, believed firmly in the uniqueness of our constitutional ethic, despised and fought against corruption of any kind, and managed to serve as Mayor of New York City, member of State legislatures, U.S. Senator, candidate for the Presidency, and twice Governor of New York. It was Clinton who convinced the New York Assembly to appropriate 7 million dollars to begin work on the Erie Canal, and who saw work begin at Rome, New York on July 4th, 1817.
Before the project was completed – to everyone’s surprise - nine years later, it would be called “Clinton’s Folly” or simply “Clinton’s Ditch”, and its mentor would be widely derided and vilified, and briefly driven out of office. Everything about the project was remarkable at one level or another, from its grand scale, engineering audacity, and the inventiveness which broke new ground in defeating obstacle after obstacle. Existing natural waterways were used wherever possible, and viaducts were constructed to bridge canyons, creeks and entire towns when necessary.(Some of those viaducts still carry transiting vessels high over busy highways, train tracks and town centers today.) German immigrant stone cutters came in large numbers to construct intricate locks and bridges, and completed sections of the canal were often connected to nearby waterways to support logistics.
Communities which had previously been no more than carriage stops on dusty roads suddenly blossomed into busy centers of enterprise. Even before the canal was completed, its very construction brought about a shift in commerce which was destined to change the face of America. And here, there is a Utah connection. In 1817, Joseph Smith Sr., the father of the Mormon prophet-to-be, left behind a foundering store in New England to seek a better future in the promising land of upper New York, where a tiny town named Palmyra had exploded into prominence thanks to the construction of a key lock in the canal system, and a new access to the inviting farmland nearby. (Lock No. 29 still operates at Palmyra today, providing a 16-foot lift in the New York Canal System.)
On October 26, 1825, The Erie Canal was officially opened. Gov. DeWitt Clinton carried a bucket of Lake Erie water on a barge, emptying it into the Hudson River at Rome. On a return voyage, he carried out the same ceremony in reverse.
The Erie Canal was America’s first “super-highway”, opening up migration to the West, turning mid-America into the “bread-basket” of the world, and establishing a previously-unimposing city called New York as the nation’s and the world’s most important seaport. The canal turned a profit its first year of use, and proved to be a boom to the entire U.S. economy and to usher in a major change in the way Americans saw themselves.
Even though the coming of the railroad and the internal combustion engine would inevitably change the way people and commerce move, a giant step forward in America’s history started out as “Clinton’s Folly”.

Today, the Erie Canal is part of “The New York State Canal System” and is designated a “National Historic Waterway”. Many abandoned locks and sections dot the New York landscape, and have served as a magnet for wanderers like Al Cooper. Lock No. 32 at Pittsford, N.Y. is used mostly by recreational boaters today.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Among a number of personal resolutions I made for myself many years ago was a determination to do a better job of writing down the important things that come along from day to day. There is something magical about the act of committing thoughts, ideas and observations to written words. The Scottish poet John Barry once told us that “God gave us the gift of memories that we might have June roses in the ‘November’ of our lives”. The things that are happening to us and around us today are likely to be those memories that bring us moments of pleasure and happiness in our ‘tomorrows’; I have found this to be one of life’s great truths.
My first ancestor to settle in America was named Tristram Coffin. Tristram was one of the original settlers of Nantucket Island – one of six Englishmen who purchased the island from its native inhabitants, and set about making it a self-reliant homeland. Beginning in the year 1659 he and his successors began keeping a record of the important things that happened in their new home. I am lucky enough to own a reproduction of that diary and every now and then I sit down with that thin volume, both because of the education involved in that study and because the very exercise serves to remind me that real history is most often written with a humble pen.
I notice, for instance, that in 1666 the first grist mill went into operation on the island, operated by Peter Folger who – exactly one year later – would father a daughter he would name Abiah, who would become the mother of Benjamin Franklin.
In 1695 – it is recorded – a French privateer anchored off shore and sent a large contingent of men to raid settlers’ houses for food.
1786 was a banner year for Nantucket’s whaling fleet, with 80 vessels leaving for northern waters, usually for cruises lasting for one year or more.
The patriotism of those early New Englanders is reflected in the grim statistics compiled during the course of the Revolutionary War: Between 1776 and 1781, it is recorded that more than 1,600 Nantucketers lost their lives in that conflict. We sometimes lose sight of the cost in lives brought about by that long-ago fight for independence.
The 1810 census revealed that the island’s 6,807 human inhabitants shared space with “332 horses, 15 oxen, 505 cows, 355 swine and about 10,000 sheep”.
The year 1820 saw Daniel Webster coming to Nantucket to try a case in court while far out in the distant Pacific, the hometown ship “Essex” was sunk by a whale, the survivors resorting to cannibalism in order to stay alive.
I find my curiosity aroused by entries which leave untold the “rest of a story”. Take for example this one from the year 1860: “Phoebe Fuller was attacked by Patience Cooper on November 22nd and died on December 12 from her injuries.” Or this 1822 notation: “ The ship ‘Globe’, Cap’t Thomas Worth sailed. During 1823 the crew mutinied, killing Cap’t Worth and three officers. The ship returned to Nantucket Nov. 14th, 1824.”
One of the most curious entries comes in the year 1780: “On May 19, with the wind southwest, rain fell intermittently until 10 o’clock, followed by semi-darkness. About noon the darkness was succeeded by a heavy yellow condition, which continued until mid-afternoon. This became known as the ‘yellow day’”. (The most extensive ever known, covering the entire eastern section of the United States and Canada.)
Flipping through the pages of this “local” diary, I find myself looking at 307 years of history, as seen and recorded through the eyes of succeeding generations of Nantucketers who felt it important to write down the highlights of island life as they saw it, from who was born and who died, to events which are sad, poignant, humorous and always . . . human. And here and there, I run into the name of my 8th great grandfather and his peers and descendants.
And what about that long-ago personal resolution ? I find myself “writing down history” as a way of life.

Tall ships with acres of billowing sails once made northeastern sea ports among the busiest in the world.

Those who settled the towns and villages of New England left behind thousands of country cemeteries in which they “wrote down history” on tablets of quarried stone such as these lichen-covered examples over-looking the nearby Atlantic.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


It is a good time to give some thought to preserving the harvest – whether home-grown or off the store shelf. Potatoes keep best if unwashed and kept in burlap sacks in an environment which is cool, dark and moist. An open container of water nearby will help. Winter squash are another good “keeper”, but keep them cool but dry and not touching each other. Make sure they have a stem attached and are free from wounds or soft spots. Hubbard types are best, but buttercup will keep for a month or two. Acorn and butternut are superb eating but have a limited shelf life. Another option is to cook the squash and freeze it in meal-size quantities. If you are lucky enough to have carrots and parsnips in the ground, leave them there – tops removed and covered with hardware wire and a layer of leaf or hay insulation. They will bring great pleasure all winter long.