I spent the night in Oakland at a cooking class taught by Phil Gelb. Five of us cozied up in his kitchen and made food-magic happen. Pumpkin gnocchi in a walnut sage cream sauce, roasted beets, simple vegetable soup, and deep-fried tempeh cutlets cooked in marsala wine. Phil set out homemade cashew ricotta cheese—divine— and improv jazz wafted about his compact urban loft.
After eating, our conversation inevitably turned to the topic of food. Favorite Bay Area vegan spots; opinions on That New Restaurant or some hip popup; best places to buy a product; the origins of certain foods; agricultural lore. In the midst of this chatter a name was mentioned, one which I’ve not heard since grade school.
What do you recall about the American folk hero Johnny Appleseed? Perhaps you see a happy-go-lucky traveler, skipping jauntily about the countryside and tossing apple seeds in every direction. A carefree sower of sweet fruit. This is approximately what I recalled from elementary school. What had not stuck with me—or was potentially never taught to me—was that the character Johnny Appleseed is heavily based on a real person, a man named John Chapman. And as is the standard with early childhood education in the United States, the lore of Mr. Appleseed heavily abbreviates (and censors) the full extent of the work that Mr. Chapman did during his life.
Chapman, who was working professionally as an orchardist starting in 1812, was a businessperson, and a talented one. Whereas you may recall Johnny Appleseed tossing seeds willy-nilly about the land, John Chapman worked to establish nurseries along the roads he traveled and would return to them often, tending to the health of his trees and later selling both the orchard and land for profit. By the time of his death, Chapman owned over 1200 acres of land.
What is more—a fact that was certainly not discussed in the history classes of my youth—is that the orchards established by Chapman were not used to grow edible fruit, but to produce raw material suitable for making alcohol. Hard cider. The sprightly folk legend traveled west, establishing orchards as a way to claim land along the frontier for the ongoing westward expansion of the United States, making alcohol all the way.
Says Michael Pollan, in a 2001 interview with NPR:
People didn’t go to their frontier without their apple seeds and this is why Johnny Appleseed was such an important figure. You know, when I started researching the apple, I thought he was just a comic book, you know, one of these legends like Paul Bunyan. I really did not know he was a historical figure, but he was. He’s just not as we’re told he was. Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. That’s why he was so popular. That’s why he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio. He was the American Dionysus. He was the guy bringing the booze.
Thanks to Phil for the history lesson. For more on the history of apples, read the interview with Michael Pollan; for a more complete history on the history of all domestic plants, check out his book The Botany of Desire.