9 Facts That Tell the True Story of Johnny Appleseed

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Wikimedia commo

A hero of American folklore, Johnny Appleseed was said to be a barefoot wanderer with a tin pot hat, and a sack of apples, so he might leave the start of trees everywhere he went. But unlike his tall tale colleagues Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Appleseed's story was based on a real man. His name was John Chapman, and his real life was far richer and more interesting than his legend. Here are nine things you might not have known about the man behind the myth, in honor of Johnny Appleseed Day.

1. HE WAS A CHILD OF WAR.

Born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1774, John Chapman grew up in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, in which his father served as a minuteman at the Battle of Bunker (Breeds) Hill and helped construct the defenses of New York against British invasion with George Washington. While his father would survive the war, Chapman's mother did not, dying in childbirth in July 1776. In 1780, Chapman's father returned home, and began to teach his son the farming trade.

2. HE WAS NO MEANDERING PLANTER.

Chapman developed as an orchardist and nurseryman, and by the early 1800s was working on his own. While his legend imagines him as a messy nomad, in reality, Chapman was much more pragmatic. Frontier law allowed people to lay claim to land through development of a permanent homestead. Such a claim could be made by planting 50 apple trees. So in his travels through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, Chapman would plant swaths of seeds to begin an orchard, then sell them to settlers once the land had grown bountiful. This made him quite the land baron as he traversed 100,000 square miles of Midwestern wilderness and prairie. When he died on March 11, 1845 at the age of 70, he owned more than 1200 acres of land. 

3. HIS APPLES WEREN'T FOR EATING.

The apples that Chapman favored for planting were small and tart "spitters"—named for what you'd likely do if you took a bite of one. But this made them ideal for making hard cider and applejack. This was a far more valuable crop than edible apples. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan wrote:

Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider. In rural areas cider took the place of not only wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water.

Where water could house dangerous bacteria, cider was safe. (And delicious.) 

4. HIS SIGNATURE LOOK IS PRETTY TRUE TO LIFE.

Chapman was often noted for his threadbare clothes and preference for bare feet. But these eccentricities may have been offerings to his faith, the Church of Swedenborg (also known as The New Church), a Christian denomination established in 1787. The second part of his signature look—that sack of apple seeds—was most definitely accurate. Because the Church forbade its members harming God's creation, Chapman became a vocal animal rights activist and vegetarian. He also refused to use grafting to create his orchards, believing that this growing technique physically hurt the source plants. So, he carried a large sack of seeds everywhere he traveled. However, his oft-depicted tin pot hat has not been authenticated. 

5. HE PLANTED NO METAPHORICAL SEED.

Another strongly held belief of Chapman's was that marriage was not for him. As the Church of Swedenborg promoted abstinence for those unmarried, Chapman remained chaste his entire life, leaving no children to inherit his lands or curtail the tall tales that sprouted like his trees did.  

6. IN DEATH, HE GREW LEGENDARY.

Though some say Chapman had picked up his nickname by 1806, it wasn't until after his death in 1845 that the legend of Johnny Appleseed really took off. Considering his distinctive look, uncommon views, and contribution to the settling of the frontier, it's little wonder his legend proved so powerful. Of course, over the years he was made to seem less entrepreneurial and the use of his apples was played down as they made their way into children's books and this Disney cartoon: 

7. PROHIBITION KILLED MUCH OF HIS LEGACY.

By the time the U.S. government outlawed alcohol in 1920, Chapman had become an American folk hero. But this didn't stop the axes of FBI agents who mercilessly tore down orchards to prevent the making of homemade hooch. Aside from slaughtering Chapman's trees, this also nearly killed America's connection to hard cider. The beverage rooted deep in our history has only recently seen a resurgence in popularity. 

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ONE OF HIS TREES.

Nova, Ohio, is home to a 176-year-old tree, the last known to be planted by Johnny Appleseed himself. It grows tart green apples, which are now used for applesauce and baking in addition to cider making. While Chapman might be glad to see his seeds still bearing fruit, he'd likely be sad to hear this tree is a noted bud source for grafting new apple trees. 

9. HE FOREVER CHANGED THE APPLES OF AMERICA.

Pollan credits Chapman's preference for seeds over grafting for creating not only varieties like the delicious and golden delicious, but also the "hardy American apple." Since apples that are grafted are the same as the parent tree, they don’t change. But by forgoing grafting, Johnny created the conditions for apple trees to adapt and thrive in their new world home.

"It was the seeds, and the cider, that give the apple the opportunity to discover by trial and error the precise combination of traits required to prosper in the New World," Pollan wrote. "From Chapman's vast planting of nameless cider apple seeds came some of the great American cultivars of the 19th century."

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

5 Simple Ways to Upgrade Your Green Bean Casserole

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iStock.com/bhofack2

Green bean casserole became a fixture of Thanksgiving spreads shortly after Dorcas Reilly invented the dish in 1955. The classic recipe, which includes Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s French fried onions, is a sacred piece of Americana—but there's nothing stopping you from playing around with it this Thanksgiving. Just brace yourself for skeptical looks from your more traditional relatives when these variations hit the table.

1. USE HOMEMADE FRIED ONION RINGS.

Green bean casserole typically calls for crispy fried onion bits from a can—and that's fine if you're pressed for time on the big day. But if you're looking to make your casserole taste unforgettable, it's hard to beat to fresh onion rings fried at home. Homemade onion rings are more flavorful than the store-bought stuff and they provide an eye-popping topper for your dish. If you're interested in making onion rings part of your Thanksgiving menu, this recipe from delish will walk you through it.

2. ADD SOME GOUDA.

This recipe from Munchies gives the all-American green bean casserole some European class with shallots, chanterelles, and smoked gouda. Some family members may object to adding a pungent cheese to this traditional dish, but tell them to wait until after they taste it to judge.

3. LIGHTEN IT UP.

As is the case with any recipe that calls for a can of creamy condensed soup, green bean casserole is rarely described as a "light" bite. Some people like the heavy richness of the dish, but if you're looking to give diners a lighter alternative, this recipe from Food52 does the trick. Instead of cream of mushroom soup, it involves a dressing of crème fraîche, sherry vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Hazelnuts and chives provide the crunch in place of fried onions. It may be more of a salad than a true casserole, but the spirit of the classic recipe is alive in this dish.

4. MIX IN SOME BACON.

Looking to make your green bean casserole even more indulgent this Thanksgiving? There are plenty of recipes out there that will help you do so. This "jazzed-up" version from Taste of Home includes all the conventional ingredients of a green bean casserole with some inspired additions. Crumbled bacon and water chestnuts bring the crunch, and Velveeta ups the cheesy decadence factor to an 11.

5. TURN IT INTO A TART.

If your Thanksgiving menu is looking heavy on the side dishes, consider making your green bean casserole into an appetizer. This green bean and mushroom tart from Thanksgiving & Co. has all the flavors of the traditional casserole baked on an easy-to-eat tart. A tart is also a tasty option if you're looking to repurpose your green bean casserole leftovers the day after.

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