When we left off last week we had established that the Baldwin apple, another of the old-time varieties grown at Joy Orchard in Woodstock, Conn., where I picked in the 1970s, dates back at least to the Civil War. Well, I’ve since learned that we might as well pick up the American Revolution while we’re at it. The Baldwin was developed from a seedling at Wilmington, Mass., sometime before 1750. There stands a monument to that discovery.
I would be interested in knowing about any Baldwin trees in the area. It would be an honor to dedicate one of the 30 rootstocks growing in our backyard to the propagation of this noble, old fruit. Otherwise, a trip to New England may be in order. It’s as good a reason as any.
Next, if I’m not mistaken, we moved on to Roxbury Russets. John, our foreman, did a little wordplay with the apple varieties, “Russet,” not rustic. “Greenings,” not greetings — Amish apple humor, I guess. This apple goes back even further — to Roxbury, Mass., in the early 1600s. It may well be the first commercially viable apple developed in the colonies.
It probably wouldn’t make a big hit in the produce section since it doesn’t shine. However, its tart flavor has a personality that out “shines” the relatively bland modern produce section fare. It’s a good keeper — if not for its dull green and coarse, sandy skin, it might be popular even now. The Roxbury Russet has long been regarded as a good cider apple. The as yet unnamed (help me out, here) apple that I’m currently in the process of developing is similar to the Roxbury Russet but sports a red/purple blush.
Our old-time apple adventure isn’t necessarily over, but the next apple to be harvested was McIntosh. Go eat one — they’re everywhere — an invasive species from Ontario. Really, though, I like Macs as much as the next guy. The McIntosh was introduced in 1870 and the original seedling, even after being damaged by fire, kept producing until 1908. After the tree fell over, a stone memorial was placed to mark the site.
It has been my experience that McIntosh doesn’t color well in our climate unless treated with Aylar or a similar compound. A ripe, green McIntosh is just as tasty as a red one. Organically grown, McIntosh apples are likely to be green. Don’t worry if your McIntosh tree never seems to ripen. The tree grows very vigorously, which inclines one to prune heavily. Be prepared to fight fire blight, which will almost certainly attack the jungle of new growth.
Next to be harvested was Courtland. The Courtland is McIntosh on steroids. Abandoning the usual exaggeration and poetic license, I can state without reservation that I’ve picked Courtlands the size of cantaloupes. These monsters always grew at the top of the trees. Like tree ripe Yorks in November, they’re one of the delicacies reserved for the orchard worker.
Bob Joy didn’t seem to mind my taking these few apples home — after all, how would you market just a few grotesquely oversized apples? I usually gave them away as novelty gifts. When you bite into a Courtland, expect lots of juice. If eating a sizable Courtland, you’ll have to come up for air occasionally. So far, no drownings have been reported.
Courtlands have a deeper, purplish color than its parent McIntosh, but the consensus is that it lacks the Mac’s subtle tang. The flesh stays white when cut up into salads, which I can attest to personally from childhood memory. In rural New Jersey, when we still bought apples directly from the orchard in the ’50s and early ’60s, Courtland, McIntosh and New Jersey’s own Winesap were our by-the-bushel favorites.
Courtland is a cross between a McIntosh and a Ben Davis. This was accomplished at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in 1898. The apple is generally held to be the first American cultivar.
John moved our wooden bins along with a forked attachment on a Fordson Major tractor, probably from the mid ’50s. Serious and well sized to the tractor, he looked every bit like a period advertisement for the machine. With its particularly stinky Diesel engine and upright exhaust, it nearly gassed us out of the trees in the process. We would raise a fuss, which was generally ignored.
The next machine to handle the apples was a forklift contraption named Happy Hooligan. I don’t know how many parts of old trucks, tractors, well pumps and screen doors went into the construction of this homemade machine. Its least endearing trait, though, was that when the steering wheel was turned to the right, the machine went left and vice versa.
Loading full apple bins can require precision and full concentration at times. That’s when the seasonal truck driver loading the bins would forget about the steering. His emotings helped give the northeast its reputation for artful profanity.
The noon lunch hour was announced by the Swiss bells playing from the church in the valley below. John mentioned that in the days of propeller driven airliners, the pickers could tell the time of day by the scheduled flights going overhead. (Jets fly too high and are more numerous.) You can’t wear a watch while engaging in serious apple picking.
I noticed that the Jamaican pickers often ate canned fish such as mackerel, sardines or kippered herring. I started bringing canned fish to work as well, sitting around full bins of oldtime apples, staring down the dusty road that winds downhill through the orchard to the rustic village below. The foliage on the mountains beyond is in full fall color. Late season wild asters peek out from around rocks and old machinery. The air has a northern chill, which makes the bright sunshine feel that much better — fragrance of wood smoke and a chainsaw buzzing in the distance. Mackerel, a Baldwin and a beer — it doesn’t get any better than this.
Special acknowledgements: Mark Twain’s Library of Humor, Edited by Samuel Langehorn Clemens, William Dean Howell, Charles Hopkins Clark. Illustrated by E.W. Kemble. 1888 edition Garrett Press 1969. “Apples” by Roger Yepson, W.W. Norton & Company 1994.
First published Oct. 14, 2015