Beyond Apple Pie: Apple Cider

September 17, 2014 at 4:23 pm Leave a comment

This week we are highlighting a tree that is not growing in our Victory Garden—yet. Every Thursday in September we are exploring one of four key maritime regions with connections to the War of 1812 at FOOD in the garden at the National Museum of American History: the Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and New Orleans. This week’s theme transports us to the Great Lakes region for a discussion of the ever-changing agricultural heritage of the “Eden of the West.” Join us in the Victory Garden for delicious food, cider-making demonstrations from Distillery Lane Ciderworks, rhubarb and apples pies from Whisked! Bakery, and more. Tickets available here.

Apples and cider

A display of apples and cider from Distillery Lane Ciderworks at the September 4th, 2014 FOOD in the Garden program.

What is more American than apple pie? At one point in American history the answer might have been apple cider. Cultivated apples (Malus domestica) originated from the wild species Malus sieversii in Asia and were brought to North America by European colonists in the seventeenth century. Much of the climate of North America was found to be amenable to growing apples. Through the process of grafting, regional varieties proliferated to create a distinctly American pomology. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew apples on their farm estates (here at Smithsonian Gardens we like to think of them as the founding gardeners) and produced cider. Today cider usually refers to the sweet, non-alcoholic variety. The cider (or “cyder”) of the 18th and 19th centuries was a fermented, alcoholic beverage and much different than the commercially-available hard cider today. Dry, cloudy, and lightly effervescent, cider was brewed in relatively small batches and tasted distinctly of the maker’s favorite blend of local apples. Cider apples are more bitter than apples used for baking and eating fresh, and there were hundreds of choices. Jefferson preferred ‘Golden Wilding’ and ‘Red Hughes’ for his cider. According to author Frank Browning in his book Apples, casks of cider were even used as an informal currency, an acceptable payment for goods and services.

Every apple-growing region in the United States was once known for their locally-developed cultivars. Lumpy or squat or pink on the inside, apples can express a certain terroir particular to the people and places who gave them root. Apples with names like ‘Chenango Strawberry’ and ‘Black Oxford’ are stories begging to be told. In the twentieth century Prohibition left cider production at a standstill and a more robust national transportation system put apples on the table no matter the season. Now, at most grocery stores only about a dozen varieties are available, cultivated over the years for their hardiness and sweeter flavor. The United States is now the second-leading producer of apples in the world, after China. ‘Red Delicious’ reigns as local apples have faded away, some lost but others making a comeback as interest in historic American food and foodways grows.

Once “new” to the Great Lakes region, apples are now deeply ingrained in the cultural and culinary heritage of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. At FOOD in the Garden this week our panel will discuss apples and other exotic (and sometimes invasive) species introduced to the Great Lakes region as settlers moved westward in search of fertile farmland. Tim Rose of Distillery Lane Ciderworks will be joined by Jodi Branton of the National Museum of American Indian and Rick Finch, interim director of the Glenn Miller Birth Place Museum for the discussion.

We hope to see you tomorrow evening in the Victory Garden as we raise a glass of cider to food history!

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

Entry filed under: Education, Garden History. Tags: , , , , , .

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