History Feature: ‘Apple-at-cha’ Cuisine

Don Justus. Photo by John Ross

Don Justus. Photo by John Ross

By John Ross

What goes better with those brisk, bluebird days of October than the tang of apple cider or the crisp crunch of an apple not long from the tree? Western North Carolina, especially Henderson County but all along the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, is apple country rivaling New York and Washington.

Nothing is more American than apple pie. Except it isn’t. Ask any Brit. They’re among the originators of apple pie and they brought seeds with them when they immigrated in the 1700s. Just ask descendants of William Mills for whom Mills River is named.

A Loyalist major who wore a British red coat in the Battle of Kings Mountain, Mills escaped and came to settle in what became Henderson County. Retired horticulturalist Marvin Owings says he was one of the first to plant an orchard in the area. Asa and Sam Edney married Mills’ daughters in 1782, giving birth to Edneyville, the center of WNC’s apple industry. Among today’s nearly 200 WNC growers are five generations of the Justus family, soon to be six when Don and Margo’s son Cory takes over next year.

Long before Mills’ orchard, individual pioneer families carefully husbanded precious apple seeds for planting near the kitchen or along the edges of laboriously cleared pastures so as not to consume land for crops or pasture. Such vision they must have had to wait six to ten years before a tree planted from seed bore fruit.

As I walk mountain streams fly fishing for trout in April, I occasionally see delicate pink and white apple blossoms winking at me through the woods. Often nearby rise clumps of yellow daffodils and maybe a box bush or two. Closer inspection often reveals a depression, once a root cellar where ripened fruit would winter beneath a settler’s cabin floor.

Apples fried in a dollop of butter or lard were a favorite of pioneer families. So too were apple schnitz, thin slices carefully dried until their edges curled. Deep-dish apple pies were baked in cast-iron Dutch ovens or, better yet, chicken fryers that are about half as deep. In most early pioneer households, flour and sugar were carefully saved. Crusts were fashioned instead from cornmeal, and apples were sweetened with sorghum molasses.

A Madison County native and culinary master, Susi Gott Séguret authored Appalachian Appetite: Recipes from the Heart of America, a cookbook of more than 100 recipes and stories gathered from chefs, restaurants and neighbors that celebrate the roots of mountain cuisine adapted for today’s palate. During her 20 years teaching English in France, she immersed herself in French cooking and studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She is the founding director of the Seasonal School of the Culinary Arts and orchestrates the Appalachian Culinary Experience.

Among favored heritage varieties of apples, Séguret says, was the June Apple. Also known as the Early June, it was generally the first to ripen and its fruit is tart like a Granny Smith. As I was sitting at the table in her farmhouse in Shelton Laurel, she got up, fetched her fiddle and played me a bit of June Apple, a sprightly staple among bluegrass musicians. In Appalachian hospitality, music and food are intertwined, often lubricated by hard cider, applejack and apple brandy.

To learn more about North Carolina’s apple industry, visit NCAppleGrowers.com. See Susi Gott Séguret’s recipe for French-style apple tarts on page 90.

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