Baked on the Tree: A Flavorful Look into the Past of Southern Apples

Excerpt of an article written by Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., 1992, Pittsboro, NC. To read the entirety of this paper, join ALHFAM to enjoy the bountiful knowledge contained in the A.S.K. database, carefully stored information harvested and preserved for our members. Join today!

Apple Index,” North Carolina Historic Sites
The Buckingham apple is the quintessential southern apple, valued for the size, flavor and the productiveness of the tree. Brought from Buckingham County, Virginia. About 1795, the variety moved from Virginia to Kentucky and spread into Missouri and Indiana as Queen or Kentucky Queen, while it moved west simultaneously from North Carolina into Tennessee and Illinois under the name Buckingham.

We are living in the last days of the southern apple. Over eighty percent of the apple varieties which originated in the south are gone. It is a song unsung; the apple was an integral part of the life and diet of the subsistence farmer. While pictures of rich plantations may come to mind, for centuries the south was a land largely of small farms.  For these people the apple was a godsend, a fruit which could be eaten fresh off the tree from June to November. It was good raw, cooked, dried, and pressed for cider, which made excellent vinegar. Most important of all, it could be kept fresh through the winter—the only fruit with this unique capability. Think what it meant to bite into a juicy, tangy apple after the monotonous winter meals of dried beans or peas, salt meat and cornbread. Apples were something special. Because of the long, hot summers and relatively warm winters in much of the south, winter storage of apples was not easy so certain apples were prized for their keeping ability.

Growing apples in the South goes against the odds: hot summer nights result in poor color, the long growing season allows additional generations of diseases and insects to attack both fruit and trees, and the long growing season causes many so-called winter apples to ripen in early autumn, compromising their keeping qualities. Last, but perhaps most importantly, this area is notorious for late freezes which kill apple blossoms and young fruit.  Southerners in every region of the south have grown and esteemed apples for centuries. Ask them about apples and their eyes light up as they speak of almost forgotten varieties: Buckingham, Red June, Yates, Nickajack, Blacktwig, Horse Apple, Summer Orange. They will tell you of apples fried for breakfast in the drippings from sausage or side meat. They remember resting the mule and plow under a big apple tree in the field. They may reminisce about wrapping apples in newspaper and storing them for the winter in boxes in an unheated room and how those apples perfumed the whole house. They remember peeling apples for drying and how good those dried apples were in that rural southern delicacy–the fried pie. They remember making cider and vinegar, but most of all they remember the incomparable taste of a southern apple fresh off the tree, dense and high in soluble solids, baked right on the tree by those long, hot southern summers.

Apples were often stored in shallow pits or trenches, usually made by plowing extra deep furrows in a well-drained part of a field. This practice was called “pitting or “banking.” These trenches were lined with dry cornstalks or leaves which also were used to cover the pile of apples. Dirt was piled over the cornstalks and then rough boards or tin pieces were placed over that dirt. The
apples dug out as needed until late winter.

Certain apples were prized for drying. The Maiden’s Blush and Ben Davis dried
without turning brown. The Horse apple was ripe in July when the summer sun made drying easy. Many southern farms also had a dry house, a loosely-built small building with a stove or fireplace in it. Apples were placed in baskets or on shelves around the inside of the dry house and would usually dry overnight if the fire was kept going.

Dried apples were a backup to stored apples, and were used mainly for cooking. They were also a source of cash for farm families when sold to merchants and moved by wagon to railheads for shipment to large cities. In 1872, $400,000 worth of dried apples was shipped from High Point, NC. In 1877, four million pounds of dried apples were received in Baltimore from Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. In those days farm families got about four cents a pound for dried apples, rising to eight cents a pound by 1900.

By 1900 subsistence farming was dying out as the south became increasingly industrialized and urbanized.  Southern orchards could never fully supply the growing southern population.  Although rural families continued to grow apples for their own use, the old trees declined and died along with the people who knew about the many regional varieties.

You could become instrumental in rediscovering an old southern apple verging on extinction; be curious and persistent. It’s true that most of the old apple varieties are gone, but that’s no excuse for not trying to save what remains. If you have an orchard on your heritage farm, be sure to include some of the rare apple varieties. If you don’t have room to grow the trees, be sure to support the farms that continue to propagate and promote the apples from your area. The next time you bite in to an apple remember that there are many ways to support living history!

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Creighton Lee Calhoun, Jr., “History of Southern Apple Culture and Varieties” in Susan A. Hanson and Lucia Stanton, ed., Proceedings of the 1992 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 59-69.

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