Several years ago Mike and I were taking a “rambling” vacation in Ohio and Kentucky. It was a wonderful serendipitous trip. We discovered the best pizza I’ve ever eaten (more about that another time), an incredibly charming off-the-beaten-path inn composed of log cabins that stood on the shores of a Great Lake and a place where Hollywood met rural America.
We were driving through Mansfield, Ohio, and stopped for lunch. We love bookstores and never miss a chance to stop and look around. Mike had been saying that the name “Mansfield” was familiar to him (this was pre-cellphones). In the bookstore he realized why the town name rang a bell.
On a shelf of local interest books were books by Louis Bromfield. Bromfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, grew up in Mansfield. In 1939 he bought three worn-out farms in an area near Mansfield known as Pleasant Valley. He named the estate Malabar Farm after the Malabar Coast of India. Besides being a writer having each of his 30 books rate on the New York Times Best Sellers list, Bromfield was a ground-breaking organic farmer. He spent many years developing practices to restore the land, then applied those practices to his acreage at Malabar. After his death in 1956, the ownership of Malabar Farms passed to the state of Ohio, which maintains the farm as a state park.
As we were talking to the proprietor of the bookstore about Louis Bromfield, the proprietor mentioned two facts that really caught our attention. First, Malabar Farm was the location chosen by Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart for their wedding. This brush with old Hollywood excited Mike. The exciting part for me was the knowledge that on the road to Malabar was a spring discovered and used by John Chapman, also known as “Johnny Appleseed.”
John Chapman was born in Massachusetts on Sept. 26, 1774, at the height of the American Revolutionary War. Not at all the wild wanderer from the stories written about him, Chapman had a sound business sense. Law at the time allowed a claim to acreage by planting an orchard of 50 apple trees, thereby establishing a permanent homestead. Working his way through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, he planted multiple orchards, tended them for several years, then sold them to settlers once they were established. In this way he amassed ownership of more than 1,200 acres.
The apples we know today were nothing like the ones planted by Johnny Appleseed. His preferred variety was known as “spitters” for the tart taste. These apples were not ideal for eating out of hand or cooking, but they were perfect for pressing into hard cider and applejack. Water of the day could contain dangerous germs and bacteria. Cider and Applejack, both slightly fermented, were safe.
Chapman was quite the nomad. He wandered more than 100,000 miles of America’s heartland. Looking a bit like the descriptions of John the Baptist, he preached his gospel of care of God’s creation and the responsibilities God gave to his followers to protect the earth.
From the early 1800s when John Chapman began his planting adventure until the 1920s, the orchards he planted thrived and provided safe drink for thousands of settlers.
John Chapman only planted seeds; he did not espouse the practice of grafting shoots of apple trees onto a base stock. Because of this, the apples grown on his trees were able to adapt and grow into new varieties particularly suited for America.
Now back to Johnny Appleseed’s spring: It was a rather unassuming, roughly constructed stone shelf. Icy cold water from a pure spring bubbled up and ran over the stone. Through the years a greenish hue of moss had colored the stone. Mike declined to cup his hands and taste Johnny Appleseed’s water. I knew deep in my heart that if I had the chance to dip into a spring cultivated by one of America’s heroes and failed to do so, my mother, an American history teacher, would never forgive me. The water was icy cold, clear as crystal and had a faint fruity taste. Maybe the fruity taste was the memory of all Johnny Appleseed’s apples.
Oatmeal-Brown Sugar Baked Apples
Inspired by a recipe on thekitchn.com
(Serves 4, easily multiplied for larger crowds)
• 4 medium apples, like Jonagold, Fuji, or Honeycrisp
• 1/4 cup brown sugar (dark or light)
• 1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (the long cooking kind)
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
• Pinch ground cloves
• Pinch of ground ginger
• 1 tablespoon butter, divided in four
• 1 cup hot water
To serve: Ice cream, whipped cream,
Preheat oven to 375°F with a rack in the lower-middle position.
Remove the core of the apples, cutting to within a half-inch of the bottom of the apple and creating a well roughly 3/4-inch wide. This is easy to do with an apple corer, but can also be done with a melon baller, grapefruit spoon, or a paring knife.
Mix the brown sugar, oatmeal, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger in a bowl. Divide this mixture between the apples, packing the wells firmly.
Arrange the apples in a baking dish (like an 8x8-inch Pyrex dish), and top each one with a pat of butter. Pour the water into the bottom of the dish and cover loosely with aluminum foil.
Bake for 20 minutes and remove foil. Continue baking uncovered until the apples are soft and the brown sugar has melted into a syrup, an additional 20 to 30 minutes.. The skin on the apples will also become wrinkled and soft by the end of cooking.
Fran Ginn is former chef/owner of The Back Door Café, who retired after 31 years in the food industry to be a grandmother. She can be contacted at email@example.com.