Tasting history

Over the past week or so our unusually warm and sunny autumn has given way to freezing temperatures and the occasional dusting of snow. Winter is clearly on its way. And Thanksgiving is almost here, the great American holiday where tastes and aromas can connect us to the past.

Many Thanksgiving celebrations will be centered around a big family meal featuring favorite traditional dishes, many of which only seem to appear on the fourth Thursday in November (with, perhaps, an encore appearance in late December).1 These Thanksgiving foods do more than stuff us with tasty calories. These holiday dishes often connect us to our own family and community history, sometimes in ways that are more immediate, nostalgic, and powerful than almost any other. Just as Proust had his madeleine, Americans have…green bean casserole. And apples.

Historic apple varieties, Brightonwoods Orchard, Burlington, Wisconsin. Photo credit Reed Perkins, 2022.


One favorite ingredient that gives year-round pleasure, and not just in hot Thanksgiving pies, is the apple. Just about everyone enjoys a fresh, ripe apple and, if you get past the bland, so-called “delicious” staples of the modern grocery aisle—bred for uniform appearance and a high tolerance for storage and shipping (but not, alas, for taste)—you can find an amazing world of apple flavors and textures. And many of these have deep historic roots, such as the apples in today’s photo gallery.

Esopus Spitzenburg

“A crisp, spicy, aromatic dessert apple favored by Thomas Jefferson. Originated in New York. Introduced in 1790.”2 Esopus is a town in Ulster County, New York, along the Hudson River. The town was near to and well-known by our Turck, Gay, and Bonniwell families, all of whom may have enjoyed the zesty Esopus Spitzenburg apple before migrating to Mequon in the 1830s.

Ashmead’s Kernel

“Unique, nut-like flavor russet makes great cider, semi-tart. Planted by Dr. Ashmead in Gloucester, England, 18th century.” Did Mequon’s Bonniwell family and their ancestors enjoy some (hard? fresh?) cider made from this variety before they sailed from England to North America in 1832?

York Imperial

“Firm, juicy apple has an aromatic, semi-tart flavor. Excellent baking, cider and drying” apple. “Flavor develops towards Christmas. Found in 1830 [correction: 1820] in York, PA.” Another early nineteenth century apple that our settlers may have baked, dried or quaffed. By the 1850s it was particularly known for its long-term storage abilities. And it even has its own roadside historical marker.

Calville Blanc d’hiver

“Classic French dessert apple. Spicy flavor, semi-tart. More Vitamin C than an orange. Favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Dates back to 1598.” In other words, this variety is as old as the Bonniwell Bible. I wonder if our Mequon immigrants were familiar with its distinctive (and very, very tasty) flavor?


The Idared is a more modern cultivar, first grown in 1942, but based on two old and popular New York varieties: “If you love the old-fashioned goodness of baked apples, Idareds are excellent, as they hold their shape perfectly and look beautiful on the table. Developed in Idaho, it’s a cross between two old-time New York apples, Jonathan and Wagener, that were first grown in Penn Yan [New York] in 1791.”3 Jonathan and Wagener apples were very popular throughout the apple-growing parts of the United States during the 1800s, and their flavors were probably known to our Clark House residents and friends as well.

An apple a day…

…may or may not “keep the doctor away.” But it’s a great way to enhance a meal, or enjoy a fresh snack. And, if you enjoy some of these classic apple cultivars, you can do a bit of culinary “time travel” back to the flavors and aromas of our Clark House pioneers.



  1. Let’s be honest: as delicious as they are, foods such as turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce usually don’t find a place on the table for weddings, high school graduations, or the 4th of July.

  2. Unless otherwise noted, all quoted apple information is taken from signs posted above each variety at the apple barn at Brightonwoods Orchard, Burlington, Wisconsin, November, 2022. For more info and sources, click on the highlighted names of each variety.

  3. The quote is from the “Idared” page of the “Apples from New York” website, accessed Nov. 22, 2022. The history of the Jonathan and Wagener apples is more complicated; click their links, above, for more details.

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