Apples for Health

A new study in the journal Stroke asks if “an apple a day keeps stroke away?” The study authors say yes. It turns out that the old 1904 apple industry marketing campaign to rebrand apples as healthful may be more true than J.T. Stinson knew when he coined the now famous adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” The consumption of apples (as well as pears) appears to lower your risk of stroke more than any other fruit and vegetable, leading the editorial writer to suggest that perhaps there will finally be an “apple a day” clinical trial.

I guess Eve knew was on to something when she grabbed that apple.


Throwing Stones

On Monday night, I went curling for the first time. Too concerned about falling and knocking myself out on the ice (a very real possibility), I didn’t manage to get any photos of the event. But that’s probably a good thing – it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight.

Curling has a long history in Wisconsin. In fact, the oldest continuously operating curling club in the country is in Milwaukee where they’ve been curling since 1846. Wisconsinites curled on rivers and lakes, anywhere they could find some solid ice to throw stones. While curling is solidly associated with Scotland, it may have actually originated in the Netherlands. Paintings from the mid-14th century show Dutch curlers. The game soon traveled to Scotland, though, where it became a national pastime. Scottish immigrants brought their love of the game with them to North America.

Americans often curled with wooden stones because wood was accessible and affordable. These stones varied in size, shape, and weight. A movement to standardize the game didn’t come until the 20th century.

Curling is a surprisingly challenging sport: something I hadn’t quite appreciated while watching it on TV during the Olympics. A slider fits on over your left shoe (if you’re right handed like me, that is) while your right foot slides back into a “hack” that’s kind of like the starting posts on a track. The basic movement is a long, low lunge with your left knee bent up and your right trailing behind as you push yourself forward on the ice, attempting to simultaneously aim your stone and not kill yourself. It’s a thigh burner and a real balancing act. Sweeping is a lot of fun, though, also requires serious coordination as you run down the ice alongside the stone sweeping, sweeping, sweeping fast and hard.

I left the curling open house with a new appreciation of this centuries old sport. I was also reminded of this charming booklet, the Annual of the Grand National Curling Club of America, 1880, detailing the matches of the 1878 – 1879 curling season that I’d run across years ago at the Wisconsin Historical Society. There’s much talk of “hardy men” braving the harsh winter weather to curl and the sumptuous meals served afterward to renew their strength.

Cider for Dinner

If you think all hard ciders are the same, it’s time to start drinking. Cider (assume I mean hard when I say it) exists in as infinite number of varieties as there are apples in the world. And that’s not even mentioning the countless ways the juice of apples can be distilled and fermented. Technique and ingredients, like in all foods, really matters.

I recently went to a cider and cheese dinner at Graze.  Each course was paired with a cider from Wisconsin’s AeppelTreow. We had everything from a sparkling perry to start, to a draft cider and a berry – apple cider mix for dessert. Each was uniquely different and complimented our meal perfectly.

Dessert course with matched cider

Cider is often made from cider apples – apples specially suited to making cider just as some apples are best for baking. These aren’t the types of apples you find in the grocery store. And that’s probably a good thing since they can be high in tannins and acids that make them rather unpalatable to eat out of hand. But they are perfect for cider.

Most cider is made from a combination of apples expertly blended to yield a balanced mix of sugars, acids, and tannins. Tannins gives the cider its color; the more tannin, the deeper the golden brown. It also gives cider its dryness, the same dryness often found in red wines. The wrong blend of these elements can result an undrinkable cider. While most cider contains a blend of apple varieties, there’s one apple that is often sold as a single varietal: Kingston Black. It’s said to be the rare, perfectly balanced cider apple.

Cider tends to reflect the country of its origin. French ciders, for instance, tend to be light and bubbly like another French specialty, champagne. Local tastes become integral to the cider making process and the cider that is produced.

As much as I love cider, my favorite cider of the night was actually not an apple cider at all – it was the perry, or pear cider. In Europe, cidermakers traditionally made ciders from both apples and pears. This hasn’t been as true in the United States, where cider and perry tend to come from separate makers.  But as cider becomes more popular, I’m holding out hope that pears and apples will be united in alcoholic glory again.






Lutefisk Season

LutefiskFall is lutefisk time in the Midwest. Lutefisk is dried cod that has been rehydrated in a lye solution and then boiled or baked. The finished fish, served with butter, salt, and pepper, has the consistency and jiggly-ness of Jell-O. Needless to say, it’s an acquired taste.

Every fall, churches throughout the Upper Midwest hold special lutefisk dinners where Norwegian – Americans (though not exclusively – these dinners attract a wide fan base) get in touch with their heritage. In some families, lutefisk even takes the place of the holiday turkey. Fortunately, most of these dinners also include meatballs, mashed potatoes, lefse (the best part if you ask me), and salad for the lutefisk averse.

Norwegians probably didn’t invent lutefisk but they certainly have a long history of making and eating it. Various stories and legends tell of Vikings Salting and drying fish was an efficient way to preserve food, and many Scandinavians brought their lutefisk with them to America when they emigrated.

Today, nostalgia plays a big role in the annual lutefisk dinner. More lutefisk is probably eaten in Wisconsin and Minnesota than in Scandinavia where most people have moved on from the gelatinous fish. But it plays an important role in Midwestern culture, both as an emblem and connection to a past shared by many of this region’s first European immigrants and as a social and community event.

I know I’ll be there.

Apple Cures

Thomson's Home Healing Guide

American physician Samuel Thomson was a big fan of apples. The founder of his own 19th century medical system, a method of natural, botanic remedies known as Thomsonianism, Thomson prescribed apples for stomach aches and advised mixing emetics with cider for those who needed a little something sweet to help the medicine go down. His medical journal, the Thomsonian Recorder, included articles on planting and tending apple orchards. For cholera, though, apples should be avoided at all costs warned Thomson.

Apples have long played a role in medicine. Even when people wouldn’t eat the raw fruit, they were more than willing rub some apple pulp on their skin or to swallow a tincture containing apples. Apples were prescribed for disturbances of the bowels, lungs, and nervous systems in 12th century Italy. In the 14th century, apple cures often called for apples cooked with sugar and spice, a kind of medical apple pie. Seventeenth century English doctors advised cider for depression, though it may have been the alcohol rather than the healing power of apples that did the cheering.

Thomson likely championed apples because they were natural, not to mention easily accessible to most Americans. Nearly everyone had an orchard in the yard. They also had a long history in medicine. Thomson’s ideas of the healing power of plants and herbs weren’t necessarily new – but he managed to capitalize them so successfully as to present the first serious challenge to regular medicine in the 19th century.

An October Fruit Surprise

Living in Wisconsin, you resign yourself to eating from the small stream of local fruit. Apples, sure. Pears? Check. We have berries – strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries – but the season is short and they are often expensive and available in limited supply at the farmers market. There’s a few others (and many wild fruits for foraging if you know where and when to look) but let’s face it: we aren’t Michigan.

So it was a pleasant surprise to run across bags overflowing with Wisconsin peaches at the farmers market this last weekend. Not only peaches but peaches in October, a month that I tend to associate with the emergence of hardy greens, cabbages, potatoes, beets, and squash. I eagerly bought a sack – and may have elbowed a few people aside in my hurry and delight (sorry, folks) – and rushed back home to dig in.

While I often think of peaches reaching their apogee in southern climates, peaches and apples actually have similar life stories. Peaches are believed to have originated in north China, not all that far from the mountains of Kazakhstan that birthed apple trees. They traveled east, west, north, and south with people and animals. The Romans learned about peaches from the Greeks who had learned about them from the Persians who had first introduced them to the West. In conquering Persia, Alexander the Great took many things from the Persians but one of the most valuable was their love and knowledge of fruit, including apples and peaches.

The Romans even called them “Persian Apples” for the Persians who loved them and likely “apples” for their round shape (many round fruits and vegetables have been called “apples” at some point, from cherries and avocados to eggplant). The Spanish fell particularly hard for the peach and brought it to the Americas, where Native Americans are widely credited with spreading peaches across the continents… and even to Wisconsin, I suppose.

Known Brussels Sprouts Lover

I’ve certainly never hid my devotion to brussels sprouts. But I hadn’t realized how widely word had spread until I crossed paths with the friendly owner of a local restaurant I happen to love. He smiled, said “nice to see you,” and then: “the brussels sprouts salad will be back on the menu very soon.”


Lunch today. I may have a problem.


All Cider was Hard Cider

Before refrigeration, all apple cider was hard cider. Apples crushed to the point of releasing their juices quickly become a fizzing, cloudy fermented brew.  What we think of as apple juice had a limited lifespan – drink it now or face it’s alcoholic dark side.

But that was okay because most people wanted cider. Cider was the drink of choice for men, women, and children for centuries. It was easy to make at home and provided a way for families to store the apple harvest without spoilage. Cider was also safer than water in many places, and could be made into vinegar for preserving vegetables and fruits for the winter. It really was a useful liquid.

Apple juice only became common with refrigeration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sweet juice was helped along by temperance advocates who decried the dangers of drinking fiendish cider, demon rum’s evil, fruity cousin.

Americans only began calling alcoholic cider “hard” in the 20th century when the sweet juice ascended to the apple drink of choice. Today, cider and apple juice are used almost interchangeably in the United States (some people do have specific beverages in mind with each word but there’s no consensus on what each mean), while alcoholic apples get the moniker “hard.” In most other countries, cider – without qualifiers – still refers to fermented apple juice.

Apples as Muscular Action Heroes

What does Rambo have to do with fruit?

Long before Rambo was a muscular pop culture hero, Rambo was an apple – but not just any apple. Big, juicy with a blush of red when ripe, the Rambo apple was said to be the favorite of Johnny Appleseed, a man who certainly knew his apples. Originating in Sweden, the Rambo apple came to North America with colonist Peter Gunnarson. Gunnarson arrived as a laborer for the New Sweden Colony on the Delaware River in 1640. Among the things he brought with him was a cask of his favorite Swedish apple seeds.

Along with a new home, Peter Gunnarson soon took a new name: Peter Rambo, named for a mountain near his hometown in Sweden. Obviously, he had no idea how big his name would later become.

The apple thrived in North America. Apples are particularly skilled at making themselves at home anywhere. So much so that we often think of apples as native American fruits. But they aren’t from here at all. Apples originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan and traveled the world in the bags and stomachs of humans and animals. They are a canny and prodigious fruit.

The Rambo apple entered American folklore through Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman. Chapman is rumored to have called the Rambo his favorite apple. He planted them (and thousands of other apple seeds) throughout the mid-Atlantic and Ohio Valley, including the Rambo tree that still grows in Ashland County, Ohio, planted by Chapman around 1830. The Rambo was beloved in the 19th century and thousands of these juicy apples were planted around the country.

But while the Rambo apple flourished in its new home, back in Sweden, the Rambo apple had gone extinct. The harsh winter of 1709 led to the death of the Rambo apple and several other old Swedish apple varieties.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the Rambo apple returned to Sweden as a living memorial to the millions of Swedish Americans who crossed the Atlantic for a new life in North America. Some of those Swedish immigrants came to Wisconsin where Rambo apples have also been planted at Old World Wisconsin.

The Rambo apple became part of popular culture in the 1970s when writer David Morrell named his action hero for the apple. His wife had brought home a bag of them from the store. Seeking a “strong sounding name” for his hero, Morrell pounced on the name Rambo after taking a bite of these delicious apples.

The poor apple’s name was never the same again.


Wild Apples

On a hike this weekend, I picked a wild apple from a tree sagging under the weight of its slightly misshapen fruit. It was a beautiful fall afternoon and the fruit fairly glowed in the golden fall sunlight. Having just written a book on apples, how could I resist grabbing one for a taste?

In my enthusiasm, I forgot to take a picture of the apple. But look at the lovely fall prairie

It goes without saying that wild apples aren’t like grocery store apples. But they also aren’t like the apples you tend to find at u-pick orchards either. They’re gnarled and lumpy, like an apple skin stretched taught over a box of rocks. They often have black spots and hard knobs from hungry insects. These imperfect wild apples reflect the apples of the past, before pesticides and other pest management strategies made it possible to have perfect, unblemished fruit. So picking one with a good spot for a bite can be a challenge – a hunt high and low through the branches for the right one.

Finding one, I took a bite, my husband watching expectantly for my reaction. I winced briefly at the surprising tartness and then relished the sweet aftertaste. The flesh was bright white with a slight green twinge toward the core, and the texture crumbly, more like a cake than a fruit.

Wild apples aren’t always so good. An apple’s agenda is different than our own. For an apple, a big core with seeds is crucial to reproduction and survival. They aren’t concerned about a good tasting or even a big amount of flesh for eating like we want in an apple. Wild apples are often bitter and tannic, too.

The apple I ate may have been the only one of its kind. An apple tree produces offspring completely unlike its parent tree. Each generation looks and tastes different. Only grafting allows us to produce apples of the same variety. The seed of this wild apple in the Baraboo hills may have traveled over many miles in the stomach of an animal. Or maybe it was the offspring of a tree near by.

All I know is that an unexpected apple found on a hiking trail on a beautiful afternoon is one of the purest pleasures of the season.