A Thanksgiving Tribute to the McIntosh Apple
Let’s take a Thanksgiving break from politics, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy to focus on an important element of the holiday: food.
Sara Bonisteel, an editor in Cooking, polled The New York Times’s employees based in Canada — a group that includes more than just those of us who write about the country — for their favorite Thanksgiving recipes from The Times. From that, she’s put together a wrap up for anyone in need of some last minute inspiration.
We’ll be cooking what we always do at the cottage where we celebrate, something doable within the confines of our inadequate kitchen and something traditional, which is the preference of my wife’s family.
I’ll also be enjoying my favorite fall treat: the McIntosh apple. If you have an abundance of apples, McIntoshes or otherwise, in the house on Thanksgiving, you may want to take a look at Cooking’s collection of apple-centric recipes.
[Read: 34 Desserts for Apple Season]
While the McIntosh’s crisp texture and tart flavor created a following for it in most of the world, its development as a commodity all began in 1811 about 45 minutes south of Ottawa in a hamlet now known as Dundela. There, John McIntosh discovered McIntosh No. 1 while clearing bush. After years of passing by a sign that encouraged me to leave a popular route from Ottawa to the St. Lawrence River and head instead to Dundela, I made the right turn.
Dundela is a tiny place. A handful of houses, a cemetery, a small park named, naturally, McIntosh and a variety of plaques commemorating McIntosh’s discovery. Although the McIntosh farm is long gone, a neighboring farm from Mr. McIntosh’s time, Smyth’s Apple Orchard, lives on.
One day, Mr. McIntosh found a wild version of an apple sapling he’d never seen before on his land. He transplanted and nourished the one surviving saplings. Then, years later, he used grafting to propagate the variety for commercial distribution and mass production. He traveled through Ontario and parts of the United States selling, and perhaps sometimes giving away, his trees.
The most comprehensive story of Mr. McIntosh I came across is this carefully researched article by Shane Peacock in Canada’s History magazine.
It’s easy to drive past the markers commemorating Mr. McIntosh’s contribution to the world of fruit. The first tree died in 1908, according to its tombstone, and the monuments to it have themselves been fading into history. The one from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada is out in a field at the back of McIntosh Park. Trees somewhat obscure the Ontario government’s plaque, which is just at the side of the road with no provision for parking. The site where the first tree once stood is invisible from a century-old stone monument to its discovery and inaccessible because it’s on private property.
The tree with the closest link to Mr. McIntosh’s first tree sits behind the store, packing rooms and warehouses at Smyth’s Apple Orchard, just beyond a formidable wood pile. It was grafted from a tree that was itself grafted from the original tree. But that early tree died about 10 years ago, leaving its successor at Smyth’s and a couple of others at a nearby history park.
The Smyth orchard was established in the mid-19th century, and the family is now in its fifth generation of ownership. Things were frenetically busy when I stopped by on Thursday. The picking of its 35,000 trees, three quarters of them McIntoshes, was in its final days and several weeks of packing, shipping and storage remain.
Although the McIntoshes still make up a solid majority of the orchard’s sales, the bulk of which go to a large supermarket chain, Nikki Beckstead, who co-owns the orchard with her husband Dean Smyth, said that newer varieties like the Honey Crisp had been eroding its single mighty market hold in Eastern Ontario.
“It’s still popular but not as popular as it used to be,” she said as tractors and forklifts moved massive bins of apples in and out of the packing shed. “Everybody wants the other apples.”
Briefly emerging from supervising the packing, Mr. Smyth lamented the large number of legacy apple varieties, including the Wolf River cooking apple, that low demand has made impossible to grow commercially.
“If the stores can’t sell cases upon cases, upon cases every week, they’re not going to handle four or five different varieties,” he said.
He said that he did not, however, foresee the McIntosh being banished from the orchard.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go away,” he told me. “It’s just too big of a demand.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.