Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nickajack Apples

Renewing America’s Food Traditions, a new book edited by Gary Paul Nabhan, is a visual feast, a celebration of “the great diversity of foods that gives North America its distinctive culinary identity and reflects our multicultural heritage.” Tell me, where else would you go to find a recipe for Passenger Pigeon Pot Pie? It's in there.

When I opened the book for the first time and flipped through the pages, I was looking for any local references. On page 147 I found a good one, a profile of the Nickajack apple, made popular by Silas McDowell of Macon County.

Silas McDowell has been a hero of mine for many years. A horticulturalist, naturalist, historian and writer, he left us a unique record of life in this corner of the mountains during the 1800s. When I cross the gap up the mountain from where I live now, it isn't far to the Cullasaja valley where McDowell lived and learned. I like to imagine that if he had journeyed from his home to Cullowhee, the trail would have taken him right through what is now my bean-field. It could have happened! I just regret that I wasn’t there to talk with him.

Certainly, Silas would have been eager to discuss his search for native apple trees and especially for varieties that would be good winter-keepers. In 1856, The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, published a description of the Nickajack:

THIS very fine and beautiful Southern Seedling Apple originated in Macón County, North Carolina, among the Cherokee Indians, in the vicinity of Nickajack Creek, from which the name is taken. It was first brought into notice by Silas McDowell, Esq., of Franklin, North Carolina,"a most industrious and enthusiastic pomologist, who sent me scions and specimens of the fruit four years ago. It is one of the best of our winter apples, keeps well until April, and, grown at the North, will no doubt keep till June or July. Size, large. Form, rather more oblong than flat. Skin, smooth. Color, dark-reddish purple to a lighter brownish red, striped on an olive-green foundation. Stalk, short, flesh, yellow, subacid, and very palatable. JOHN R. STANFORD, Clarksville, Geo

One of the pleasures of studying the old apple varieties, and culinary heritage in general, is the delectable language that goes with it. Over the years, the Nickajack apple has also been known as the Carolina Spice, Cheatam Pippin, Winter Rose, Winter Horse, Missouri Pippin, and World’s Wonder.

As it turns out, Gary Nabhan will be discussing his new book tonight in Highlands, a place where Silas McDowell spent much time exploring. And so it is that Nabhan will be following in the footsteps, both literally and figuratively, of one of the most fascinating people to ever walk these mountains.
A pair of Nickajack apples

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