An Apple A Day Keeps the Doctor Away

We all know that an “apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Apples are filled with healthy vitamins and fiber – the perfect healthy snack.

But this is a relatively new idea. For centuries, eating a raw apple was seen as a reason to call FOR a doctor. People throughout Europe and North America were suspicious of apples and raw fruit in general. In medieval Europe, apples were banned for children and wet nurses. An upset stomach or flu nearly always resulted in fingers pointing at the poor, humble apple. It didn’t help that many believed the apple the cause of Eve’s downfall in the Garden of Eden.

At the same time, apples found a welcome home in the medicine cabinet, prescribed for all manner of aches and pains. It’s funny that an apple could both cause disease and cure it.

Part of the unease with apples had to do with the apples that many people were eating. The Romans had cultivated extensive orchards and seemed to know everything there was to know about apples. But when Rome fell, that knowledge mostly disappeared (or in many cases, went behind monastery walls where monks practiced orcharding techniques aiming for self-sufficiency), leaving people with the often bitter wild apples. They tasted so bad that many people came to believe that apples were poisonous. Fruits sold in villages and city markets were often unripe, overripe, or contaminated so apples weren’t all that appealing.

Apples were wildly popular in alcoholic form, however. Cider was the drink of choice in England, France, Spain, and the United States. The Temperance movement in the 19th century ruined cider’s reputation and by extension, that of the apple as well.

In an effort to rehabilitate the apple’s image, the apple industry began marketing apples as healthy foods for actual eating and not just drinking. Missouri fruit specialist J.T. Stinson coined the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, an association apples have benefitted from ever since.

A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Ships

William Halsall, Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor (1882)

In 1620, Separatists from England (otherwise known as the Pilgrims) arrived in what would become the United States aboard the Mayflower. The onboard menu was far less attractive than what draws travelers to the cruise buffet lines today – hard biscuits, salt pork, dried meats, oatmeal, fish, and a few pickled things. The Pilgrims were not the somber kill joys we tend think of them as – the ship also included stores of alcohol (legend has it that the Pilgrims only stopped in Massachusetts because the beer was running low and not because they actually wanted to settle on Cape Cod) as well as apple seeds for growing the fruit that would make hard cider. The Pilgrims shared a widespread belief that water was unwholesome and dangerous and so preferred to drink the fruits of fermentation.

Like the horses that carried apples overland, ships carried apples overseas. European explorers and colonists brought favorite apple varieties with them to the New World. Some of the first colonists tried planting grafted Old World apple trees but most did not fare well in their new environment. Fortunately, they also planted seeds, which tended to do better. As people moved further inland, they took their apples with them, establishing orchards in the Midwest and on the Pacific coast by the late 19th century.

Apples also traveled to South America with Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The apple trees became so thick and vigorous that by the time Charles Darwin landed in Chile in 1835, he claimed to have nearly missed the Chilean port of Valdivia for the tangle of foliage and fruit.

Apples arrived in Australia in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip established the English colony of Port Jackson (today’s Sydney). And the infamous Captain Bligh had a soft spot for plants, sending the Bounty’s  botanist to plant apple seedlings on the coast of Tasmania.

In 1862, writer Henry David Thoreau praised the apple’s sea legs, declaring that the apple “emulates man’s independence and enterprise. It is not simply carried… but like him, to some extent, it has migrated to this New World.”

A History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Seeds

apple seeds
Source: Aka

I know what you’re thinking – “seeds aren’t made by humans! This isn’t an object as defined by the rules of this game!” Yes, yes, I know. But we’re looking at seeds to talk about something humans do to (deliciously) interfere with the reproduction of apples: grafting.

Apples, like humans, produce offspring that can be radically different from the parent plants. They are heterozygous. This means that left alone, an apple tree will produce hundred of seedlings each a little (or a lot) different than the other. This genetic diversity allowed the apple to spread through the temperate regions of the world since at least one of those seeds had what it took to survive in new conditions. The only way to ensure that you get the same type of apple is by grafting.

Humans have been grafting plants for thousands of years, and apples may have been one of the first grafted fruits. To graft a plant, growers attach the root of one tree to the shoot of the desired fruit to clone it. It’s the only way to get reliable apple quality and consistent fruit.

The Persians, Greeks, and Romans each used grafting to produce favorite apple varieties. The Romans had at least twenty-four cultivated apple varieties, one of which, the Lady Apple, is still commonly grown and is one of the oldest known fruit varieties. It isn’t often you can get a real taste of the past, particularly one that dates back to ancient Rome.

History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Cider Press

Cider press in Madley, Herefordshire, UK
Source: mira66

Apples taste delicious. But they make an even better drink. Squish them up, enough to release the juice, and they quickly turn into a bubbly fermenting brew. Humans have made alcoholic apple cider for hundreds of years. It was thought to be a nutritious and healthful beverage as well as a good way to preserve what could otherwise be an overwhelming apple harvest. Cider was also one step on the path to cider vinegar, a fantastic preservative for foods for the winter months.

In Britain, nearly every farm had a few apple trees for eating and drinking. This tradition came to North America with the colonists where cider served as an important medium of exchange. Colonists paid for school and goods with barrels of cider. Everyone – children, too – drank cider.


History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Bronze Horse

Bronze figure of a horse, Eastern Han dynasty, 2nd century C.E., Excavated from a tomb in Letai, Wuwei county, Gansu, H. 36.5 cm., Gansu Provincial Museum. Source: Asia Society

Born in the mountains of Kazakhstan, the apple hitched a ride to the rest of the world in the packs of humans and stomachs of animals traveling on the Silk Road. Humans picked up the delicious fruit to eat along the way, dropping the cores that house the seeds and all future apples.

But animals are an essential part of the story of the Silk Road. Horses, among other animals, played a key role, providing both milk for local use and transportation for the development of international relations and trade. The clever apple evolved to have smooth, tear-dropped shaped seeds perfectly proportioned to pass intact through the intestinal tract of a horse. In the belly of a horse, an apple could travel 40 or 50 miles a day, gaining tremendous ground in its takeover of the temperate world.

An Object History of Apples

In 2010, 100 curators from the British Museum unveiled a massive project to tell the history of the world through objects – 100 objects to be exact. The results were unveiled on BBC Radio 4 first before becoming a fantastic book, A History of the World in 100 Objects. 

It’s such a fascinating idea and such a perfect medium for telling historical stories since so much of what we think of as “history” is ephemeral – events we can’t see for ourselves, people we can’t really imagine as real people, dates that seem so long ago that we can’t even imagine them.

Because I love this idea so much – and because it is September (even though I really just can’t believe it – the changing leaves tell me it must be true) and apple season – I’m going to tell do my own, slightly pared down version: the history of apples in 10 objects, based on my book, Apple: A Global History.

The fun begins tomorrow.

Hitch-boating in Sweden

I’m sure my mom told me never to hitchhike. Or if she didn’t, I’m sure she meant to or hoped that I would understand that hitchhiking fell squarely under the “don’t talk to strangers” category. Don’t talk to them and certainly don’t ever get in their car.

All of these thoughts passed through my head as I stuck my thumb out for the first time, caution overcome by the reality that we were really freakin’ far from where we needed to be. In an hour. To catch a boat. To an island where our luggage sat waiting in our room for the night.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I sure hoped Twain was right about those “charitable” and “wholesome” men.

That morning, my husband and I had set out on a hike along a section of one of Sweden’s most popular and longest hiking trails, Sörmlandsleden. Marked by orange dots, arrows, and rings, the trail covers 1000 kilometers through woods, bogs, fields, and past lakes and streams. The plan was to do about 15km along the path, ending at the boat launch to Savo Island.

The day began rainy and gray but the lush green landscape and blueberry-lined path helped to make up for the extreme sogginess I felt from the waist down. We soon learned we weren’t alone on the path – swarms of mosquitoes trailed behind us, a mass of swirling insects whining in our ears and landing swiftly on any exposed skin if we paused for even a second. So we kept moving, enjoying as much as we could but also hoping to conserve our blood.

But somewhere along the line we got lost, though we didn’t know it for several hours. About halfway to the pier, we reached a beach and a signpost for the Sörmlandsleden pointing both straight toward what looked to be a shelter and to the left and a hill. We chose left.

We chose wrong.

Hours later, hungry and wet, we stumbled out of the woods and on to a driveway that led to a road.  That’s when we realized that we had made a mistake. Instead of a straight line toward the pier, we’d made a huge oval, ending up on the busy road a few kilometers north of where we started and about 20 kilometers from the pier. I called our hostel to explain the situation. The owner told me to call her when we got to the pier and she would send over their boat to get us.

Unsure what to do or how else to get there, our thumbs went out. My husband had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back, where hitchhiking is as much a part of the experience as hiking. I was the novice. The guidebook had warned that Swedes won’t stop but I hoped they were wrong: that the warning came on the advice of the publishers’ lawyers rather than any statement of fact.

The first car to stop was a Prius driven by a man who spoke no English. After a confusing series of gestures and jabs at our topographical map (completely unhelpful for roads), he drove us a few kilometers to his driveway before pulling over and staring at us. We took that as our cue to get out.

Feeling confident by our initial success, I stuck out my thumb with a bit more conviction.  We walked along a bit further until a red station wagon driven by a man from Stockholm en route to his summer cabin pulled over. He spoke perfect English and lived only 3 kilometers from the pier. We chatted the whole way to his place, grateful for the kindness of strangers and the Swedish penchant for summer cabins.

Only a few kilometers from the pier now, we walked along the road, hoping for another ride but knowing it wasn’t too far now, that we would make it. We debated the finer points of hitchhiking as we walked. Nice cars won’t stop, my husband said, only crappy cars overloaded with clothes and bags and other junk. He also said that my presence made it more likely for someone to stop. Strangers will pick up women (a thought for another day) but rarely lone men.

A shiny red BMW rounded the corner and I barely put my thumb out, sure it would pass us by and probably so close that I’d have to jump onto the grass. But instead it stopped. Inside was an older man wearing hip waders and holding a basket of foraged mushrooms. We told him where we going and he nodded and waved us in with a “I’ll take you.”

Arriving at the pier, we got out and thanked him for the ride. He shook his head and said, “no, I’ll take you.”

He pointed us to a motor boat tied up on the pier. We climbed in and he took to the controls. We soon learned that he lived on the island with his wife. When I asked him how many people lived there, he said that year ’round it was only two, he and his wife. Then he said, “I own the island.”

I caught my husband’s eye. “Oh my god, can this even be happening?” my face said. He only smiled and we sat and watched the island come closer in to view.

“I take you to my house. To meet my wife,” he said. Unsure what to say, we nodded and waited until he pulled up to the dock. We climbed out and followed him up the grass toward the house. “She will be surprised,” he said. A second later, “but maybe not so surprised.” He laughed and I laughed too, wondering if he does this often, picking up lost Americans by the side of the road.

He knocked on the window of the kitchen and his wife came to the door. He said something to her in Swedish and then “I found them by the road.” She smiled, looked slightly confused, and said “hello.” We thanked her and thanked him again. He turned and directed us down the path and through the woods to the hostel.

“Have a good time,” he said and turned to head back down the path to his house.

Ten Years On

Ten years ago yesterday, I packed up my car and moved 2,000 miles away from my home state. I was off to grad school in a new state, knowing no one, and not really quite sure what I was going to do in grad school but it seemed like the right thing to do. I liked to read and to write and to think about the past – what more did I need?

Wisconsin wasn’t a complete unknown. My parents grew up in Illinois, and like all good Illinois residents, they often spent their summers in Wisconsin. Even after they moved far away, to a town just outside Seattle, Wisconsin remained a summertime destination.

As a kid, my Wisconsin was rolling hills, fireflies, farm fields, blaring tornado sirens (though I had no idea what they were – being bookish, I liked to imagine it was an air raid and that we would soon need to darken the windows with our blackout curtains), and lightning that cut across the sky in an angry gash. My Wisconsin was Wisconsin Dells, Taliesin, House on the Rock, Lake Geneva, and the truly bizarre Don Q Inn. It was water towers with town names painted on the sides as though they were staking a claim to a piece of land and proclaiming it to all the surrounding fields and towns. And it was unlike anything I knew back home.

And while I came from a place rich in natural beauty – Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, towering evergreens – it was this more humble Wisconsin landscape that few would call magnificent that grabbed me and never let go.

Perhaps that’s why I now call Wisconsin home.

Home is a funny word, though. What does it mean and how do we know when we’ve found it? Is it the place where we grew up or the place we find ourselves as adults? Is it people or place or something else completely?

A Wisconsinite now for ten years, I still startle slightly to hear people refer to me as a “Wisconsinite” or a “Madisonian.” I’ll still tell people I’m not originally from here but at ten years and a third of my life spent here, what does that even mean and why does it matter?

I’ve heard people say that home is “wherever [insert loved one] is,” which sounds lovely and true. And while I don’t doubt their sincerity, I can’t help but want to shout “but place also matters!” Or at least it does to me, to my definition of home.

Everything I do and can do is a product of this place and its past. Everyone who lives here is a beneficiary of its people, traditions, and landscapes – all the elements that make a dot on a map a real place. Reading and writing Wisconsin’s history has taught me about Wisconsin but also about myself. And it’s helped me to feel at home here even if I’m not yet ready to call this place “home.”

That’s something I’m still working out.

New piece on Jerry Apps finally out

Check out the latest issue of On Wisconsin (the University of Wisconsin alumni magazine) for my profile of prolific Wisconsin writer, Jerry Apps. Jerry is a force to be reckoned with – every book catalog I open from a Wisconsin publisher seems to include a new book from Jerry. His work ethic is both humbling and inspiring. I can only hope to be as engaged and active as he is in my 80s.

Eating and Drinking in the Badger State

All this month (red-faced about my delayed posting of this since May is half over!), I’m curating entries on the “Wisco Histo” blog from Wisconsin Heritage Online (WHO). WHO is a collaborative project to digitize the resources of libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives across Wisconsin. It’s a fantastic resource for discovering the history of Wisconsin through photos, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and objects.

Flipping pancakes at an open house in the Paul Bunyan Room in the UW-Madison Memorial Union.

Every so often, they invite historians and others to highlight selections from the collection around a particular theme. Usually, they ask you to do one week – but, being the indecisive person that I am, I bullied them into letting me pick an entire month’s worth of entries!

So May is food history month on Wisco Histo! I had a great time picking images (mostly – a few articles) from this fantastic collection.