Grim's Grub: The legend of the planting pilgrim

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

In the 1800s, the United States was a harsh land with wild animals and, of course, human conflict planting peril around every corner. As a result, the people who braved that environment have legends that endure today.

Most, but not all, of these legends involve those who are noted for their skills with weapons that they used to survive. Such is the case of Davy Crockett and his flintlock or Daniel Boone and his namesake knife. There is, however, one legend who endured 50 years in the wilderness famously armed only with his faith, almost like John from the Bible. Maybe coincidentally, maybe not, his name was also John - John Chapman.

He followed a "mystical" branch of Christianity called the Church of New Jerusalem, which based itself on teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. For most of his life he wandered day and night and all seasons through the frontier with no gun and no knife - just the clothes on his back (apparently as simple as a pair of pants and a coffee sack with holes cut for his head and arms), written passages about his faith and two bags.

He was considered eccentric and dabbled in all sorts of things, but he is most known for his connections to the alcohol industry in the United States.

It's surprising how much time mankind has spent attempting to make cheaper booze, and such is the case here with Chapman's life's work. You see, wine has long been a popular drink, and oftentimes one of the higher priced items, especially if it required transport, such as it would in the early years of the United States. The price of wine was also long fixed by a conglomerate of producers who could crush anyone who went against their wishes, as they did with absinthe producers.


Many an alcoholic drink was invented to vex the wine producers, and that was Chapman's life's work. You see, Chapman didn't travel the frontier to blaze trails. He traveled to plant orchards for fermented drink production. In his two bags he carried seeds for plants that would grow fruits too bitter and tart to eat, but just perfect to produce a crisp tasting, popular alcohol.

Chapman was planting what we today might call crab apples, the fruit responsible for hard cider. Interestingly enough, he felt that planting the seeds was planting the word of God. The apples were called "spitters" back then because that's what people did if they took a bite of the apples.

Today those hearing Chapman's legend assume he was planting large red apples, but back then most of the frontier wasn't suited for production of "hand fruit" apples, but it was very suited for cider apples. The average settler drank 10.52 ounces of hard cider per day, according to Ripley's Believe it or Not!

Chapman also helped natural selection in the American frontier to create new cultivars of apples. He didn't use grafts, so his trees wouldn't produce true to fruit. They were at the mercy of the environment and would readily adapt to survive. As a result, Chapman is directly responsible for eventual creation of "hardy American apple" cultivars. Other botanists, especially in Minnesota, would later create many edible varieties, likely from these strains.

Chapman died in his 70s after spending 15 hours in the snow fixing a fence. He wandered to a neighbor's home in Pennsylvania to get in out of the cold as he was feeling uncharacteristically worn out. They let him in and he helped himself to a simple meal of bread and milk before settling in front of the hearth and falling asleep. He was feverish before he woke and history cannot decide if he died within hours or days.

Much of Chapman's work was undone in the 1920s when orchards across the nation were destroyed to keep people from fermenting their own alcohol when the commercial supply chains were disrupted. That industry is getting back on its feet now, so many years later.

In spite of that setback, Chapman's legend prevailed. When I was a child everyone learned about Chapman. Sure, our kindergarten teacher didn't tell us he was planting apples to produce booze, but everyone knew about Johnny Appleseed. His legend is surprisingly accurate. He apparently was always barefoot, though the pot on his head may have been a fabrication.


The tombstone marker at the grave site of John Chapman (also known as Johnny Appleseed), December 24, 2016, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Apple Fry Tempura

  • 2-3 apples
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup water (ice cold)
  • 1 cup pastry flour
  • Oil for frying
  • Thin caramel sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons sugar

Fried apple rings

In a deep pan or fryer bring 3 or more inches of oil to 350 degrees.

Peel your apples and slice them into french fry size strips. Mix your cinnamon and sugar and set aside. Beat your egg and combine with pastry flour. When everything is ready, combine the ice cold water with the egg/flour mix and stir until combined. Quickly dip a small handful of apple fries in the batter then gently drop into the frying oil.

Once they are floating, golden and crisp, remove them to a plate lined with paper towels to drain excess oil. Continue frying another handful of apple fries. When much of the extra oil is gone from the finished apple fries, but the tempura is still hot, toss the fries in the sugar and set on a plate for serving. This can be done while the next handful of fries is frying.

Repeat these steps until all apple fries have been cooked and dipped in cinnamon sugar. Serve with thin caramel sauce.


Apple Rolls

  • 1 large can apple filling
  • 1 package lefse
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons apple pie seasoning (or just cinnamon)
  • 8 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 small jar thick caramel sauce
  • 1 block cream cheese just barely thawing (optional)

Apple Rolls

Prepare a 9x9-inch square baking pan by coating it with nonstick spray or oil. If necessary, cut lefse to 9-inch lengths. Fill lefse sheets with a 1-inch round by 9-inch long serving of apple pie filling, then roll it and place it in the baking pan. Repeat until the baking pan is filled with rolls of apples.

Combine the sugar and apple pie seasoning. Brush the tops with melted butter and dust liberally with the sugar mixture (reserve some for a later step), then bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes or until the lefse is golden. Next, use a cheese grater to grate the cream cheese over the top of the apple rolls. Use as much or as little of the block as you prefer. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar mixture and then bake another 5 minutes or until the cream cheese melts slightly.

Before serving, heat the jar of caramel sauce. Plate one roll, then drizzle caramel sauce over the top. Don't use excess sauce.

A used postage stamp (circa 1966) printed in United States shows the pioneer Johnny Appleseed Chapman who is credited with planting apple trees throughout North America.


Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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