Farms bustle to put up the last of the year’s harvest while autumn’s paintbrush sweeps a dramatic backdrop of fiery reds, golden yellows and sunset oranges. Late-season apples, the “keepers,” are carefully harvested and loaded into pecks, bushels and bins.
In October, every farmhand is busy wrapping up the harvest of Michigan’s hardiest fruit crop that delivers a sweet economic impact of $900 million every year.
Imagine centuries ago when the sweet apple did not exist here. Native, wild berries and crab apples supplied nutrients to complement the taste of wild game. It is the wild fruits that inspired Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s to sow seeds of the sweet apple, transported in satchels tucked in birch-bark canoes.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the outdoor Apple Smorgasbord event attracted dignitaries and launched the reign of the apple queen.
Seedlings from these earliest plantings soon rose, with the hardiest rooting firmly in the naturally irrigated regional soils. Trees eventually bore fruit, and though not perfectly sweet and often even bitter, early settlers relied on the apples for survival in the form of apple butter, sun-dried apples and fermented cider that could be stored in winter in crocks, stowed in hillsides and below-ground dugouts.
As a settlement grew in Detroit in the 1700s and 1800s, orchards were cultivated along the river. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the Michigan Territory blossomed with the arrival of adventurers seeking land. Homesteading entailed sowing seeds and grafting apple trees with the confidence the labor would pay off in future harvests.
Creamy cabbage-and-apple slaw
Yield: 6-8 servings
6 cups finely shredded green cabbage
½ cup finely shredded onion
1 green or red pepper, seeded and cut into thin strips
1 large red apple, cored and diced
¼ cup dark or light raisins
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons mustard
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of pepper
Green pepper rings and apple slices for garnish (optional)
1. In large salad bowl, combine cabbage, onion and pepper strips. Toss apple and raisins with lemon juice, add to cabbage.
2. In small bowl combine mayonnaise, sour cream, honey, mustard, salt and pepper. Pour over cabbage. Toss until evenly coated.
3. Cover slaw with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time.
4. Stir with fork just before serving. Garnish with pepper rings and apple slices, if desired.
Recipe courtesy Alpine Township Historical Commission. It was one of the featured recipes at the Bicentennial Peach Ridge Apple Smorgasbord in 1974.
Prepared recipe courtesy Tommy FitzGerald, executive director of Kitchen Sage; photo by Johnny Quirin.
Today’s orchards reflect the vibrant provenances of the past: Many of Michigan’s 850 apple farms have been tended for generations. What’s surprising is that 65 to 70 percent of all Michigan apples grow just northwest of Grand Rapids on a 20-by-8-mile land ridge.
“Ridge” farmers are multi-generation families, many of whom are connected to the first settlements in the region. This Michigan apple country is where a bustling fruit business ignited in the mid-1800s. In the 1950s and ’60s, the outdoor Apple Smorgasbord event attracted dignitaries and launched the reign of the apple queen.
Today, the region focuses on growing varieties that appeal to a broad market. Still, by visiting family markets on The Ridge, you’ll often find Michigan heritage apples such as Jonathan, McIntosh and Paula Red in ready-to-go bags next to more modern favorites like Honeycrisp, Gala and Fuji.
If you’re an eager explorer, visit The Ridge farms that offer a fun day in the orchards, including Overhiser Orchards in South Haven, Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery in Grand Rapids and King Orchards in Kewadin.
You can also visit farms that specialize in growing old-time apples, many with intense, juicy flavors and mottled skins, and others with pretty profiles and intriguing origins.
In 1975, John Kilcherman, nostalgic for the apple orchard of his youth, planted apple trees to complement the cherry orchard on the farm belonging to him and his wife, Phyllis: Christmas Cove on the Leelanau Peninsula. The Kilchermans culled nursery catalogs and eventually settled on nurturing 250 apple varieties with names like Arkansas Black, Strawberry Chenago and Macoun.
The Kilchermans are delighted to share the stories of their apples’ origins.
“Wolf River is one of the best baking apples to pair with ice cream,” says Kilcherman.
The behemoth apple holds much of its shape in the cooking process for a chunky bite in pie or a tart. The seedling apple was discovered in the mid-1800s along the Wolf River in Wisconsin.
Apple Cheddar Turkey Panini
Yields: 4 servings
This quick sandwich can be made with a panini press or a George Foreman grill. It is equally delicious if you choose to omit the turkey.
2 Michigan apples* thinly sliced
8 slices hearty whole wheat bread
2 tablespoons honey mustard
8 slices (approximately 8 ounces), 2% sharp cheddar cheese
8 thin slices deli-roasted turkey (or as much as you want per sandwich)
1. Preheat the panini press or grill. Spread the honey mustard evenly over each slice of bread. Layer apple slices, cheese and turkey over four slices of the bread. Top each with the remaining bread slices.
2. Lightly coat the press or grill with vegetable cooking spray. Grill each sandwich for three to five minutes or until bread is golden brown and cheese has melted.
Remove from pan and cut in half. Serve as an easy appetizer at parties or with a green salad for a quick and healthy lunch or dinner.
*Suggested varieties: Cortland, Empire, Gala, Ida Red, Jonathan, Northern Spy, McIntosh, Paula Red or Rome
Recipe courtesy Michigan Apple Committee
“Duchess of Oldenburg has a sharp taste and is an early season apple perfect for pies,” he says.
Duchess of Oldenburg originated in Russia in the 1700s and made its debut in Michigan roughly a century later. It also cooks up into a delicious, tart, early-season applesauce.
Calville Blanc d’Hiver, one of Michigan’s earliest heritage apples that grew along the Detroit River in the late 1700s, originated in France in 1539 — “beautiful apples that won’t win any taste tests,” chuckles Kilcherman. Its knobbed pretty exterior caught the eye of Claude Monet and is captured in his famous “Apples and Grapes” painting.
Like the Kilchermans, the Wards of Eastman’s Antique Apples are passionate for preserving heritage apples. They grow Calville Blanc d’Hiver and perhaps as many as 1,500 other apple varieties on their 1909 family farm situated on the Midland and Gratiot county line in Wheeler.
More recently, they added a charming tasting room in the orchard to promote and sell their hard ciders. It’s a family affair with Tim and Cindy Ward, their sons and extended family chipping in on the labor.
“All of us in the family feel a responsibility to the apples and their histories,” says Nicole Beil Ward. “Having come to know the fun facts and historical tidbits, as well as the unique tastes and looks, are what connect us to the apples. There’s a certain pride and joy that comes from telling people you grow over 1,000 varieties of apples.”
Since adding hard cider production to the family farm’s activities, the Wards refer to themselves as a “tree-to-tap” business.
“We grow the apples we use in the cider, and then do all the picking, pressing, bottling and more,” says Beil Ward. “There’s a real interest in knowing where your food and drinks come from.”
In southwest Michigan, the Teichman family carries on the tradition of apple growing that started in the 1920s with the planting of Jonathans. Their Tree-Mendus Fruit farm in Eau Claire grows an array of more than 200 modern and historic apples. More than 30 varieties of apples are available at any given time in the fall.
Individual Apple Upside-Down Cakes
Yields: 12 servings
All of the goodness of an upside-down cake in a smaller portion.
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 medium, unpeeled and cored Gala or Empire apples, sliced ½ inch thick
¼ cup dried Michigan tart cherries
1 box dry yellow cake mix
1 cup sour cream
1 cup apple juice
½ cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
1½ cups plain granola, finely crushed
¾ cup caramel ice cream topping
¾ cup prepared whipped topping
1. Preheat standard oven to 350 degrees. Spray 12, 4½-inch muffin cups with baking spray with flour.
2. Combine butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Divide mixture evenly between 12 muffin cups. Place 1 apple slice over mixture on bottom of each muffin cup, pressing firmly into cup. Fill center with cherries.
3. Combine cake mix, sour cream, apple juice, oil and eggs in bowl of mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Mix on low speed 30 seconds. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl. Beat on medium speed three minutes, scraping bottom and sides of bowl occasionally. Portion out and scoop batter into each muffin cup. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons crushed granola, lightly pressing into batter.
4. Bake 30-35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes. Run a thin metal spatula around edge of each cake. Carefully invert onto cooling rack. Cool completely.
5. When ready to serve, drizzle each cake with 1 tablespoon caramel topping and top with 1 tablespoon whipped topping.
Recipe courtesy Michigan Apple Committee
“Inquisitiveness” is what has driven Herb Teichman to plant heritage apple varieties.
“We’ve made a game of trying all the old-time apples,” says Teichman.
Even so, the traditional Jonathan apple is still a family favorite.
“It is an all-purpose apple. It tastes good, keeps well and makes a great candied apple and pie.”
Raised in the orchard, he followed in his father’s footsteps, nurturing the apples and keeping customers delighted in the experience.
Arrive for breakfast for sweet cider and baked apple-topped waffle boats in the market, then drive into the orchard for apple picking. If you visit on showcase days, you can taste slices of freshly cut apples, like Chestnut Crab and Hidden Rose.
Everyone has unique taste buds, which is why it’s fun to explore the diverse varieties of Michigan’s apple orchards.
“Michigan Apples” author Sharon Kegerreis is a native Michigander who is passionate for “all things” Michigan. Get in touch at sharonmk.com.