Saturday, November 06, 2021



Autumn is coming reluctantly to our part of the world. The Aspen in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains have turned their bright yellow. While the one on our placita stubbornly sports its mid-April colors. In our community the Cottonwoods and Locusts are still undecided. El Rancho de las Golondrinas held its annual Harvest Festival. And – in spite of the fact that our Geraniums and Hollyhocks continue to bud and blossom – the cold nights, cool mornings and evenings, and warm sunny days are telling us that the time to gather and reap is here.

John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, was an American pioneer nurseryman who introduced apple trees to large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia and Ontario, Canada – but not New Mexico. No need to. When it came to such crops, and most of their foods, the Colonial Spanish were all for BYO.

This acronym, along with the time of year, puts us in mind of PYO harvesting. So, like many of you, we are heading off to our local Pick Your Own orchard for the year’s last round of self-harvesting and… Wait Toto, we’re not in Connecticut anymore.

Here’s what the native NM apples are like: “sweet and leathery...bitter sweet [and] the size of a plumb... small sweet variety of very little value” – at least in the 1870s according to out-of-state commentators as quoted in “Fruit, Fiber, and Fire” By William Randall Carleton. (The title refers to apples, cotton and chiles – all successful New Mexican crops during parts of the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Things have changed since then. The local fruits are better than that now, but still not as good as the ones at e.g. Belltown Orchard in Glastonbury, CT – our erstwhile PYO of choice. Not enough to warrant twelve hours of flying back-and-forth – but certainly worth a phone call. More on that later. First a little about the history of apples in our new territorial home.

According to the Food Empowerment Project, “Europeans believed that food shaped the colonial body [and that] the European constitution differed from that of Indigenous people because the Spanish diet differed from the Indigenous diet...thus the fear that by consuming ‘inferior’ Indigenous foods, Spaniards would eventually become ‘like them.’ Only proper European foods would maintain the superior nature of European bodies, and only these ‘right foods’ would be able to protect colonizers from the challenges posed by the ‘new world’ and its unfamiliar environments.” That Spanish diet was composed mainly of bread, olive oil, olives, meat, and wine. In addition Catholic doctrine decreed that “the proper matter for [communion] is wheaten bread … [and] only wine from the grape,” per Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.

However early explorers found “neither wheat, nor grapevines, nor any proper animal…present in the new colonies.” Thus, the Spaniards who settled New Mexico in 1598 brought with them the so-called “tríada Mediterránea” of wheat, grapevines, and olives – plus Eve’s forbidden fruit. The new territory’s climate, altitude, and soil mirrored that of the best apple-producing areas in Spain. Not so for the olive trees. Lard replaced EVOO. So much for the Mediterranean Diet. For a “proper animal” the Spaniards brought Churro Sheep, which provided both meat and clothing – and now gives us the chance to talk to las Golondrinas guests about the “Three W’s” of colonization, “wheat, wool and wine.”
So what varieties were these incoming Spanish apples, and how were they consumed?

We have been unable to answer the first question. A New Mexico State University “fruit specialist” is attempting to create a Colonial Heritage Orchard with cuttings from what are believed to be direct descendants of the original Spanish fruit stock – but not yet.

As to the second query, based upon what happened in other places, the fruit was most likely too bitter and chewy to be eaten direct from the tree. Instead it was made into cider – hard cider, which had a longer shelf life and whose octane could be adjusted for the kid’s menu. (Northern Spain has been making cider since 55 B.C. The Principality of Asturias boasts annual consumption of 14 gallons per person/per year – probably the highest in the world.)

(Monzano Mountains)

“The first apple trees seem to be the handiwork of Franciscans at the Abó and Quarai pueblo missions [now the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.] Planted in the 1630s, the friars also taught the Pueblo Indians and the nearby colonists how to graft the seedlings for a hearty crop. Within years, apple trees and orchards were flourishing along the mountains north of today's Mountainair. When the Spaniards returned to the area following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, they found apple trees...still bearing fruit, all along the mountains. So dominant were these apple trees, the returning settlers named the mountain range the “Manzanos” – the Spanish word for apple trees.” ( Such naming conventions are not uncommon out here. Albuquerque’s Sandia Mountains are so-labeled for their resemblance at sunset to a ripe watermelon.

“New Mexico is indeed home to the first apple-growing region in the country,” claims Craig Moya, New Mexico Hard Cider owner. A 1926 survey of the Manzano Forest Reserve identified a tree believed to have been planted before 1676.

Under Spanish rule New Mexico was pretty much isolated from the surrounding United States until 1821 when Mexico took control and opened up trade along the Santa Fe Trail. So for 200-plus years it is probable that not much changed vis-à-vis the state of apples in the territory. Then in the middle of the 19th century come the horticultural efforts of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy.

(Archbishop Lamy 2nd from left.)
According to historian Marc Simmons, “a total of four acres bordering Alameda [Street] were enclosed by an adobe wall and transformed into a bountiful oasis. On several trips east, Lamy brought back flowering shrubs and fruit trees, transporting them in cans of water inside ox-drawn wagons. The churchman’s garden was shaded by large ornamental trees such as locust, maple, cottonwood and willow. Then there were fruit trees of several varieties – peach, pear, apple and cherry-plus almond trees.” The food was distributed to the poor and hungry in northern New Mexico.

In 1859, John Clark planted apples from Missouri north of Santa Fe at Los Luceros. Anglo settlers – among them Mormons – brought in tree cuttings in the late 19th and early 20th century. As mentioned previously these newcomers viewed the local apples as inferior in taste, texture and size. But they were still proof of the territory’s good soil and fruit-growing conditions. By the 1870s, apples from this small number of new orchards were receiving praise from far as away as Colorado.

And in the 1920s, the Stark Brothers, the nation’s leading purveyor of trees and the developers of Red and Golden Delicious apples, came to the Española Valley to sell their product to aspiring orchardists. (BTW the story of Stark Bros. is in itself an interesting one.

“A salesman from the Missouri-based company rode the train to Santa Fe [and] helped fill agricultural tracts that had been appropriated by the U.S. government and returned to [original Spanish] land grant heirs in 1908,” according to current day fruit-grower Eddie Velarde

Nonetheless apples in New Mexico were largely considered a secondary crop. “The families here grew most of their food and used the orchards for alcohol production...Often they were given last priority if there was a water shortage. Then the trees were cut down during Prohibition,” said Moya.

Malus, “a quarterly print journal featuring bitter-sharp criticism and commentary by America’s great cider thinkers” takes issue with the story that orchards were “destroyed or replaced due to local or national prohibition laws or the temperance movement.” “The oft-repeated example of the unnamed orchardist who took an axe to his trees in a fit of Temperance fervor is, even if true, an isolated example,” wrote cider historian Ben Watson.

The misinformation is attributed to Michael Pollan and his book Botany of Desire. “Just about the only reason to plant an orchard of the sort of seedling apples [Johnny Appleseed] had for sale would have been for its intoxicating harvest of drink...Eventually they [temperance advocates] would attack cider directly and launch their campaign to chop down apple trees.”  “Unless your neighbors dropped a dime on you, no one was going around trying to eradicate cider,” says Watson.

Still websites such as aver, “by the end of Prohibition, the only apples left were those for eating, not for making hard cider. And thus, beer became the drink of choice, and the resource needed to make hard cider – cider apples – had been completely destroyed.”

As for New Mexico’s prohibition-inspired apple tree destruction we offer this semi-analogical explanation. The “Big Mill” at El Rancho de las Golondrinas was a commercial business near Las Vegas, NM supplying wheat flour to the U.S. Army forts in New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma from 1880 to 1920. When the forts shut down the mill did also – sitting intact until the 1960s when it was donated and moved to the museum. Surprisingly its metal parts were not scavenged by the U.S. Government for the WWII war effort, as other vacated factories were. One Golondrinas guest told Jim that it showed that even then no one knew New Mexico existed. Similarly it seems unlikely that the Revenuers would have thought to look for hard cider scofflaws here in the Land of Enchantment. On the other hand New Mexicans did approve state-wide prohibition by three-to-one in 1917 – three years before the national law went into effect. Perhaps that “fit of Temperance fervor” carried over to NM’s orchardists. Our home state has clearly changed its point-of-view and is now ranked sixth in “States with the Worst DUI Problems,” per CT is number 38.

Whatever the reason, during the 1920s many trees were cut down – and over the years development and drought has taken its toll on New Mexico’s orchards. One of the oldest and most popular, Dixon’s Apple Farm in Peña Blanca, shut their doors in 2012 after fire followed by flooding.

So the apple situation was not that great in New Mexico when we moved here in 2017. And now this. “Historically, the [orchard] had about 10 days per year when temperatures hit 100 degrees, but last year had 62 such days, Eddie Velarde said. Trees that were formerly on a 14-day watering cycle are now watered every 10 days. The peak of the picking season used to fall around Labor Day, but now it’s in August. Global warming is happening.”

A sad state of affairs for those of us who were used to years-and-years of bi-monthly PYOing just across the river from our Wethersfield home. Apple season for us in 2017 was consumed instead by looking for and moving into our new home in Santa Fe. In 2018 we searched unsuccessfully for a NM orchard at which we could self-harvest, and for “real” apples at the Farmers Markets – and we seriously began missing our favorite New England fruit. In later October, close to the edge of total apple despair, Marsha took her cell phone in hand, punched in Belltown’s phone number and soon enough by way of a “Big Brown” delivery truck an assortment of “the ones that travel best” were in our eagerly quivering hands. We rationed ourselves to one-a-day savoring each crunch and drop of juice on our chins. Repeated the process in 2019, 2020 – and soon will in the current year.

On the down side, all this gustatory goodness put us in mind of other CT favorite foods. Some, such as Polska kielbasa from Martin Rosol’s in New Britain, CT, we will have shipped to us,. Others we probably will never have again. For example a sausage, eggplant and pepper grinder with provolone cheese and sauce “in the oven,” from our old neighborhood pizzeria, “Leo’s.” (For you non-Connecticuters grinder = hoagy = submarine=hero.)

We have found nothing that comes even remotely close. In fact the only similarly shaped sandwich we’ve found is at the local Subway franchise. There was no Spanish BYO of either it or its ingredients – except perhaps berenjena (eggplant.) PYO doesn’t even make sense. And UPS doesn’t offer a GrubHub type on-time delivery guarantee. There is certainly an abundance of indigenous (small “i”) foods to take its place. And we definitely are not concerned about becoming “like them.”

But still…

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