One important crop the New England farmer greatly relied upon was his apple orchard. Apples were a staple in the New England household and had many uses. From cider, the main drink of the 1800s, to their various uses in cooking, apples were vital to the rural farmer and his family.
Farms in New England were very different from modern farms. Unlike today’s farms which mass produce one or two crops, farms in the 1800s grew a vast variety of crops that would completely support a family. In addition to providing fresh and preserved food for the family to eat, surplus would provide a small profit or a means of barter at the country store and with the various tradesmen such as the blacksmith or cooper. One portion of the farmer’s land would be dedicated to 100 to 200 apple trees.
Apples are a part of the same fruit family as peaches, pears, plums and cherries and have been popular in our culture since they were first harvested. Apple seeds were brought to America by the Europeans in the 1600s and continued to be an important crop into the 1800s. Like today, apples were harvested late in the season, typically mid-October, after the first frost, for the apples picked then would be juicier, crispier and contain more fruit sugar than apples picked earlier in the season.
One of the biggest uses of apples was for cider, a staple drink in the 1800s. While each farmer had acres of apple trees, he didn’t typically have his own cider mill. Either a group of farmers would invest in a town mill, or one individual would build and own the mill, charging farmers to use it. Cider mills were typically small barn like structures only about twenty by thirty feet in size. One side would house the “nut mill” and the other the “press.” When the farmer used the mill, he brought with him all his own supplies, from oxen, to barrels, to straw and apples.
The first step to making cider was to pass the apples through the nut mill. This part of the mill was simply two large wood cylinders, about ten inches in diameter, one with “teeth or projections and the other with cavities or mortises that corresponded and meshed with teeth.” (Picard) A small space was maintained between the two cylinders to allow the apples to pass through and be crushed. The nut mill was powered by horses or oxen hooked up to the device and made to walk in circles around the mill, turning the cylinders.
After the apples were crushed, they were left overnight to soften. The next day, the apples would be loaded into the press. The press was a large wooden framed structure with one to three screws, each eight to nine inches in diameter, in the upper frame. The crushed apples would be layered with straw in a large square frame—a layer of apples, then a layer of straw, another layer of apples, and so on. This pile of apples and straw was referred to as the “cheese”. Once the cheese was complete (three to four feet high) boards would be laid across the top and the screws would then be tightened to compress the apples, squeezing out the juice. The juice would be collected in barrels and allowed to ferment. The resulting alcohol acted as a purifier and preserved the cider.
The farmer needed about thirty to forty bushels of apples to make enough cider for the year. Each bushel only supplied three to four gallons of cider. The “drops” or bruised apples were used for cider making, while the best apples were saved for eating and cooking. Apples had many uses in the kitchen. A few barrels would be stored in the root cellar for the winter, but the majority of them served a variety of other purposes.
Apples were often cored and sliced horizontally, creating rings which were then strung up across the kitchen and left to dry. The dried apples were saved and rehydrated over night in water throughout the winter as needed. Some cider would be taken and boiled down to create either cider vinegar or molasses—cider boiled down with sugar and butter added to it. Apple sauce was another popular use for apples. The 1800s apple sauce was very different from today’s. It was more like a cranberry sauce—a dark brown color, thick, sour and void of any preservatives. It was used as a spread on bread or with meat, but it was not eaten on its own.
The apples, dried apples, vinegar, molasses and sauce would be used throughout the winter in a variety of dishes from apple pie, to pork apple pie, apple pudding, apple pancakes and many more dishes. Apples were without a doubt a staple in the 1800 New England farm family’s diet.