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What the Disney myth didn't say

Mar 11, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

The recent warm days, along with the advent of high winds, have me worried about our apple crop.

My grandfather spent many anguished hours trying to get nut and fruit trees to grow in our unpredictable climate, with mixed results. I guess I've inherited his mania.

Some years the trees bloom beautifully, only to fall victim to a hard frost that kills the petals. Other spring seasons bring temperate weather with high bloom volume, only to have a violent 50 or 60 mph wind rip the blooms right off the tree. Once again, even the slightest change in the weather can mean no apples the following autumn.

While the natural element is impossible to forecast, the human element is much easier to predict. There is a peculiar attribute in poisons designed to kill plants or insects. Their potency is directly proportional to the desirability of the plant or insect.

You can pour herbicide directly on a dandelion and it just keeps growing. Get even a droplet of that same poison on your prize cherry tree, and it's dead within hours. The same holds true for mosquitoes, horse flies and other pests. They can be inordinately tough to eliminate with insecticides, while lady bugs, praying mantis and honeybees must be treated with kid gloves when spraying.

America was once a land largely devoid of nearly everything sweet. Honey bees are of European origin as are sugar beets. Sugar cane originated in Southeast Asia and Africa. The only truly indigenous American source of sugar came from sugar maples native to present-day New England.

Sugar beets didn't arrive on the scene until German scientists perfected them in the late 19th century. Wars were fought over sugar cane between imperialist powers in Europe, America and Japan at the same time against colonial plantations in China, the Philippines, Africa and wide areas of Asia from French Indochina to India.

Slavery began as a result of the world's insatiable taste for something sweet. Africans were enslaved and forced to work throughout the Caribbean on large, dangerous, disease laden sugar plantations. The sugar became molasses and eventually rum, finding its way back to Europe in the process.

Table sugar was uncommon until the 20th century in most of the world but the conversion of sugar into alcohol was universal.

In the colonial United States and Canada sugar production was extremely limited and imports so difficult to find that rum, whiskey and gin were the major imports to eastern and southern cities.

On the ever-expanding frontier these high octane drinks were nearly non-existent aside from the occasional mountain man rendezvous.

What wasn't so rare was the drink of choice for Americans well into the 20th century. I've been doing some reading on apples. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was an actual man, now elevated to mythological status by Walt Disney and others.

He is often portrayed as a horticulturalists' version of John the Baptist, often depicted with a metal pot on his head, dancing in the moonlight wearing burlap clothes and spreading apple seed across the Ohio River Valley.

Well, some of that is almost true. He did raise apples, and he did much of his work in the Ohio River Valley, everything else is just an elaborate embellishment.

Apples are believed to have originated in modern-day Kazakhstan thousands of years ago. The unique genetic composition of the apple allows it to adapt to nearly every climate on the planet. They are now ubiquitous on every continent except Antarctica.

If John Chapman just tossed a few seeds here and there in his travels through modern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, the effect would barely have been noticed. Apples grown from seed are notoriously small, sour and so varied that they bear no commonality at all.

Chapman started many nurseries from seed but also grafted branches from known varieties in establishing orchards across the region. All of our modern, high-production apples come from grafted trees.

He started the orchard, hired a share cropper to see it to maturity, and sold trees to eager customers everywhere.

These customers weren't salivating in anticipation of eating a Red Delicious or Granny Smith but they were looking forward to a sip from the jug.

Almost the entire American apple crop prior to 1920 became hard cider. The natural sugars in the apple allowed quick fermentation.

The bitter cold of the "Old Northwest" territories made it easy to concentrate the alcohol. All you had to do was let your batch of hard cider freeze on a 30-below winter day. The ice was tossed away and the fluid that remained was up to 30 percent alcohol. They called it apple jack.

Somehow, Mr. Disney and the Golden Book series left that little tidbit out.

I'm not planning on drinking my apples next fall, but they make great pies and the cows sure love the culls we toss into the pasture. Here's to the arrival of the blooms in a few weeks.

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