Today the roadsides of New England are littered with apples trees, often ignored or painted and photographed for their scenic charms. But from the very first days of the country, the apple tree was a mainstay of any New England farm -- and cider was the national drink.
Here are nine apple cider traditions, now mostly gone by the wayside:
- No Wassailing Allowed. Puritans eschewed the English custom of Apple wailing or wassailing around the start of harvest time. This was a ritual farmers carried out by bringing pans of mulled cider to the orchard, drinking, singing and shouting among the trees. They also splashed the tree roots with liberal amounts of cider to encourage greater apple production. The Puritans, who didn’t like the pagan feel of the wassailing, held apple bees, or parings or cuts. These were neighborhood gatherings where women got together to prepare the annual apple harvest.
- The Harvest Dinner. Apple parings often concluded with a dinner celebrating the completed harvest. It featured foods from the home’s now-bulging stores. Nuts would be served from the attic, apples from the pantry and cider from the cellar.
- The Kitchen Test. It was a test of a girl’s skill in cooking to see if she could pare an entire apple and make
only a single peel.
- Love Me, Love Me Not. A girl trying to decide between two boys could use apple seeds to sort the matter out. She would wet two seeds, one representing each boy, and place one on each cheek. The seed that stayed on the longest represented the boy whose heart was true.
- The Etiquette of Cider. In most years, cider was plentiful. In the earliest days of New England, cider was pressed by hand, but soon horse-powered presses became more common and the cider flowed as freely as water. During pressing season, anyone passing a cider press could expect to be offered a drink of sweet cider. And even when it had hardened in barrels, it was customary for any guest to be offered a drink of cider from a family’s cider store. A large family might put up as many as 100 barrels of cider for a winter.
- Frozen Cider. Those who wanted more kick to the cider could drink frozen cider. This was produced by leaving hard cider out in the winter. When the water in the cider froze into ice, it could be removed, leaving a denser, more potent cider. The process could be repeated six or seven times to produce a truly potent drink.
- Apple Orchards and the Temperance Movement. Apple trees by the thousands, perhaps millions, were cut down as the temperance movement swept America in the early 1800s. Farmers embracing the new non-alcoholic order removed entire orchards because they couldn’t imagine how they would possibly make use of the apples if they weren’t pressing cider.
- Apple Sass. An important task on any farm was producing boiled cider apple sass to be used as a spread or relish during the winter. Similar to apple butter, boiled cider was not simple to produce. A large pot of cider was brought to a boil and two smaller kettles of cider were kept simmering on the fire. As the water boiled away from the cider in the large pot, more was added from the simmering kettles to keep the process constantly at a boil as the cider thickened into a molasses-like consistency. To finish, peeled and quartered apples were dropped into it and allowed to partially cook. It was then frozen and used like a relish.
- Dried apples for spring. By springtime, the fresh apples, apple butter, apple sass and even cider were running low. A family would turn to its dried apples for a taste of dried apple pie. In the fall, apple slices were strung up and hung outdoors to dry. Once dried, the apples would he hung in a home’s rafters for the winter until they were needed. Then, in the spring, they would be brought down, soaked and cooked into a dried apple pie.
Thanks to Old Time Gardens, by Alice Morse Earle. This story was updated in 2018.