Fall has always been apple-picking time in the Midwest. I grew up on a farm half a mile from a railroad track. In late September, my family and I gathered basketfuls of apples picked from two trees that grew in the brambly land between the tracks and our property. The apple trees just seemed to happen, like the cockleburs and milkweeds that invaded the cornfields.
Those were the years when vagabonds rode the freight trains and, according to my father, sometimes jumped off and camped along the railroad track on the edge of our farm. “Hobos probably planted these apple trees,” he said. “They were always leaving something behind.”
The trees were not exactly prizewinners. With their crooked and uneven branches twisting in every direction, they looked ready for an Intensive Care Unit. I don’t know what kind they were, and the apples looked as if they weren’t sure either: The fruit ripened in various shades of red and yellow that suggested edibility, but looks were deceiving. The apples were small, misshapen, and often marred by bird-pecking scars and wormholes.
The trees put up a scratchy fight when I climbed them to pluck the pathetic fruit they produced. Sometimes I took a bite from one. The flesh made my tongue feel as if I’d just sprinkled powdered alum on it. The peelings were so hard and the apples so heavy that they would have made handy weapons to fend off neighborhood bullies. We’d go back to the farmhouse with bushels of these little knobby things. In the kitchen, my mother managed to overwhelm their bitter flavor with enough sugar that her apple pies tasted just fine, though a scoop of ice cream on top didn’t hurt.
I’m not the first person to have tasted an apple that is less than delectable, and I’m sure I’m not the last. Some 8,000 different varieties of apples are grown in the world today, but only a fraction of those are flavorful and pretty enough to make it to fruit stands. American grocers mostly carry varieties championed by states like Washington, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but it seems every state in the union takes some pride in its apples (even Alaska has an entry, the Siberian crab apple). At the market, I generally reach for Minnesota’s McIntoshs or Honeycrisps, though I’d still take a second look at a display that had some less-familiar options—like Live Music, Lady in the Snow, or Scarlet O’Hara.
Apples have had a rocky history in Minnesota. The famous 19th-century editor and politician Horace Greeley, perhaps best remembered for the quotation “Go West, young man. Go West and grow up with the country,” is reported to have warned an audience in 1860 not to bother going to Minnesota because it was impossible to grow apples there. This disparaging remark was not far from the truth. Minnesota climate and soil were a hard sell. Early settlers had failed dismally at producing apples that could survive our climate and produce a product worth eating.
All that changed, however, when the apple-loving and apple-breeding Peter Gideon arrived on the scene. On his property near Excelsior, Gideon tested thousands of seedlings. By 1868, he had come up with the mother of all Minnesota commercial-quality apples, the Wealthy. The name actually has a sweet history: When 17-year-old Wealthy Hull moved to Minnesota to teach in the county schools, she became the apple of Gideon’s eye. He married her, had three children with her, and when he finally produced the delectable apple that is still around today, he gave it her name. After her death in 1889, Wealthy was buried along Lake Minnetonka near Excelsior, not far from the very spot where the fruit named in her honor was created.
Delicious and beautiful apples don’t just happen. They have pedigrees. They’ve been to good boarding schools. They are the result of good breeding. Minnesota’s apples are as much the culmination of careful planning as a sturdy and attractive building, and you don’t take a design from a tropical climate and transplant it with thatched roof and pole construction onto the frost-heaving Minnesota prairie. The dappled Haralson, with its characteristic spots, is a good example. The Minnesota Horticulture Research Center introduced it in 1922 and named it after the superintendent of the University of Minnesota’s Fruit Breeding Farm, Charles Haralson. DNA testing has shown that Gideon’s Wealthy is part of the Haralson parentage. It is a cross, simply designated Malinda (f) x Wealthy (m). The combination has given us a tree known for its vigor and hardiness, and a fruit that is excellent for eating—raw or in pies, served with or without a dollop of ice cream.
Minnesota’s most recent star is the Honeycrisp, which debuted in 1991. The Association for University Technology Managers called it one of the “25 Innovations That Changed the World” in 2006, describing it as an apple “with almost magical qualities” that “marries sweetness sought by some and tartness touted by others.” Its lineage includes the Keepsake, a product of the University of Minnesota’s crossbreeding program. The Honeycrisp’s other parent? The family tree lacks some clarity. It seems one of its ancestors may have been lost in the discard bin—and I’d like to think that one of its parents made an unexpected stop along a railroad track somewhere.
When I look at the many beautiful apples that are available in Minnesota today, I know how far we’ve come. What my family harvested along the railroad tracks were actually inadvertent gifts from train passengers who threw their apple cores out the window as they passed our property in the 1920s and ’30s. But my father was partly right: The apples that resulted were really hobos of the fruit world, tattered and unkempt and lacking the kind of nurturing that might have given them a more respectable life. They looked like vagabonds with unfortunate backgrounds. They didn’t look like trees that grew up in a good neighborhood with good schools and loving parents.
Minnesota’s popular apple varieties are the result of experimentation and persistence. They deserve the praise they get, and I bow to them with a farm boy’s humility, of course. But all apples have an interesting history, even the bitter ones. Even the alum-tasting ones. And especially, I think, the knobbiest ones. If tomorrow I saw a new apple at the market with the name Hobo Delight, I’d buy a peck in a second.
Jim Heynen is the author of The One Room Schoolhouse and several other books. He lives in St. Paul.
12 Orchards Not Far From the Metro
• Afton Apple Orchards
Besides delicious pick-your-own apples, this orchard boasts a 15-acre corn maze (the biggest we’ve heard of), open daily through October. 14421 S. 90th St., Hastings, 651-436-8385, aftonapple.com
• Apple Jack Orchards
After you pick apples, let the kids have a ride on the cow train while you try your hand at the apple cannon. Hit the target in a cornfield and you win a prize! 4875 37th St. SE, Delano, 763-972-6673, applejackorchards.com
• Deer Lake Orchard
During the Apple Festival Music Extravaganza visitors can listen to bluegrass, jazz, or gospel. The orchard offers a different genre of music every weekend through the end of October. 1903 10th St. SW (County
Rd. 108), Buffalo, 763-682-4284, deerlakeorchard.com
• Minnetonka Orchards
Themed festival weekends center on classic fall fare, like apple cider and Halloween festivities, but also unexpected fun, like a children’s theater show and a dog-themed weekend in November. 6530 County Rd. 26, Minnetrista, 763-479-6530, minnetonkaorchards.com
• Pine Tree Apple Orchard
The annual Run & Walk for the Apples on October 17 has trails that meander through the orchard. At the end, apple goodies, including the orchard’s famous homemade pies, are provided. 450 Apple Orchard Rd., White Bear Lake, 651-429-6577, pinetreeappleorchard.com
• Emma Krumbee’s Apple Orchard & Farm
This award-winning orchard offers apples and, unless there’s a frost, hydroponic strawberries, through October. Check out more than 100 handmade scarecrows entered annually at the Scarecrow Festival, or enter your own. 501 E. South St., Belle Plaine, 952-873-3006, emma-krumbees.com
• Applewood Orchard
Bring the kids and enjoy apple picking, a hayride, and the hedge maze. Or sign the whole family up for a session of scarecrow-making. 22702 Hamburg Ave., Lakeville, 952-985-5425, applewoodorchard.com
• Fireside Orchard & Gardens
Flower lovers can marvel at the color burst of the fall chrysanthemum-and-rose garden and pick their own apples, all while enjoying a selection of homemade fudge, doughnuts, and cheeses. 2225 Lonsdale Blvd. E., Northfield, 507-663-1376, firesideorchard.com
• Montgomery Orchard
This nature-focused orchard has a free Adopt-a-Tree program that lets children up to age 16 put their name on a tree and return every year (as long as the tree is alive) to receive a free half-peck of apples. 15953 State Hwy. 99, Montgomery, 952-221-1051, montgomeryorchard.com
• Pleasant Valley Orchard
Perhaps the only Minnesota pick-your-own orchard with a picnic area that overlooks the beautiful St. Croix Valley. 17325 Pleasant Valley Rd., Schafer, 651-257-9159, pleasantvalleyorchard.com
• Maiden Rock Apples
Try the award-winning apple cider or tour the facility at the developing Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery. W12266 King Ln., Stockholm, Wisconsin, 715-448-3502, maidenrockapples.com
• Ferguson’s Morningside Orchard
Morningside’s free, peaceful wagon rides through the orchard give visitors a unique pick-your-own experience. N17543 Grover Ln., Galesville, Wisconsin, 608-539-4239, morningsideorchard.com
While the differences between Haralson, Duchess, Regent, Honeycrisp, and McIntosh may not be apparent to the average Minnesotan, to the trained chef, the subtleties that distinguish each of these varieties could make or break the perfect dish. Apples have the ability to lend acidity, texture, sugar, and, of course, that homey autumn flavor, to your favorite foods. We asked three of Minnesota’s top chefs to share with us recipes inspired by those beautiful red, green, and golden orbs that appear every fall.
Truffled Honeycrisp Apple Salad
“Apples really bring you back to the earth and the apple orchard is one of the first CSAs,” reminds chef Marianne Miller of Saga Hill Cooking School in Wayzata. She says she loves the romance of apples and apple-picking in the fall, emphasizing that “nobody goes to visit the potato farm.”
2 large Honeycrisp apples, julienned
1/4 cup white-truffle oil
5 cups mixed baby greens with arugula
1/2 cup Cambozola cheese, cubed and room temperature
1/4 cup dried sweetened cranberries
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice
1/3 cup chives, finely chopped
In a medium bowl, coat apple slices with truffle oil and salt to taste. In a large bowl, combine apples, greens, cheese, and cranberries and toss lightly in lemon juice. Garnish with finely chopped chives.
“As far as capturing the local, natural element of our climate, apples are wonderful,” says chef Scott Graden of New Scenic Café in Duluth. His recipe for spicy Indian soup with Granny Smith apples will warm up even the chilliest of fall days.
1/8 cup olive oil
1 cup white onion, diced
1/3 cup carrots, diced
1/3 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons curry powder
3 cups tart apples (such as Granny Smith), peeled and diced
5 cups water
1/3 cup vegetable stock
10 ounces coconut milk
2 cups cooked short-grain brown rice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon Spanish thyme
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon toasted cumin, ground
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Heat olive oil in a large stock pot. Add onion, carrot, and celery and cook until just soft. Add red bell pepper and apples and cook 4 minutes. Stir in flour and curry. Add water, stock, and coconut milk. Bring to a low boil, then reduce and simmer for 15 minutes. Add cooked rice. Season with lemon juice, crushed red pepper, thyme, bay leaves, white pepper, and cumin. Add cilantro just before serving.
For this guilty pleasure, Khanh Tran, pastry chef for Cosmos Restaurant at the 601 Graves Hotel, recommends Haralson apples because they “stay firm and tart when baked or cooked.” Tran came up with this recipe one summer when she couldn’t get to the state fair and found herself missing the mini-doughnuts.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup milk
1 tablespoon melted butter
2 egg whites, beaten stiff
3 apples, peeled and sliced
vegetable, canola, or corn oil for frying
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the egg yolks, milk, and melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and fold in the stiff egg whites. Dip the apples into the batter. Fry the batter in 350- to 375-degree oil until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel. Dust with powdered sugar. Serve immediately.