Photo from Sweetland Orchard Facebook Page
I’m slightly obsessed with the authentic Pilgrim experience of Thanksgiving these days. Like, did you know that the Pilgrims had moved lock, stock, and barrel into an abandoned Patuxet village entirely wiped out by plague?
Oh, and it was probably a plague brought by Europeans. So that’s maybe not so cheery, but is interesting. There's also the fact that Tisquantum, the native American who saved them, only did so because he had been press-ganged into slavery by Europeans, where he waited out said plague as a slave. When he finally did get home he found his village gone, and, maybe illogically decided to save a bunch of Pilgrims and Puritans (which, btw, are not the same thing) instead of killing them or letting them starve.
Also interesting: A big part of the original Thanksgiving would have likely been passenger pigeons, mussels, flint-corn porridge or cakes, and a lot of tree nuts such as beech and chestnut, and a massive part of it was definitely venison, as five deer were taken for the celebration. So, if you want to have a real Pilgrim-approximating Thanksgiving today, good news deer hunters, paleos, and gluten-free folks, it’s right in your wheelhouse: Set the table with lots of venison, duck, and corn pancakes.
But what to drink? Obviously the Pilgrims hadn’t been around long enough to plant apple orchards, but if you want to set an American table appropriate to the 1700s or 1800s instead, the thing you need on it most of all is hard cider.
The average 19th century American drank more than 10 ounces of the stuff each day! President John Adams started every morning with a tankard of hard cider. The stuff was even used on political advertisements way more than apple pie—meaning, for early Americans you were as American as apple cider. Even kids drank hard cider, called ciderkin after you mixed in a little water—the alcohol in the cider killed the pathogens in the water.
Which is why it's great news that in Minnesota we finally have our first commercially available old-fashioned cider, Sweetland Orchards. And the stuff is great.
Here’s the story: Mike and Gretchen Perbix (he's a former quality control chemistry guy and she's a current professor at Mankato State) decided they wanted to raise their kids (now 9 months and 3-years-old) on the land. Gretchen, who grew up in Hastings, knew that apples orchards were beautiful places because her childhood music teacher had an orchard. They started looking and, badda-bing badda-bang, they happened upon a five-acre orchard with 49 varieties of apple trees planted by a passionate hobbyist that came with a commercial cider press. They bought it, they moved in, and the first year they made 75 gallons. Then, the next year they made 1,500 gallons. And this his year they're up to 10,000.
Last May they started selling their hard cider on tap at Republic and Birchwood, and in August they started selling bottles in liquor stores including Zipp’s, France 44, Stinson Wine Beer & Spirits, the Ale Jail, and Sentyrz.
“It’s kind of going how we hoped,” Gretchen told me. “It snows, and Mike can pull the kids through the orchard on the sled with the dogs. Our families come and help and we can get the cider into the bottles. We have so many birds. It’s just beautiful to live on an orchard.”
You can taste the beauty in every bottle! Say I. Sweetland ciders are very, very dry. The Northern Spy has a beautiful almond note that threads through the fine, small bubbled dry cider and finishes with an elegant sort of burnt lemon note. It would be great with turkey or stuffing, because of the dryness, but absolutely perfect with cheese as the floral apple-y qualities complement the cheese while the dryness scours and resets the palate from the butterfat. (Northern Spy fun fact: It may have been named in Maine for the conductors of the Underground Railroad, who helped slaves go north.)
The Sweetland Scrumpy is more full-bodied, and a little lower alcohol—6 percent is written on the bottle, but Gretchen says they guess it’s more like 5-point-something—because they sweeten it up at the end with a little fresh pressed cider. That little zing of cider gives the cider a nice roundness, but not any kind of cloying sweetness; it is a noble drink. It goes beautifully with cheese, and is also fantastic with shortbread, pound-cake, panna cotta, gingerbread, and other not too, too sweet desserts, because the off-dry sweetness of the apples embraces the lighter flavors of a not-too-sweet dessert, and the not-too-sugary desserts allow the Scrumpy to show off its elements of brisk grace.
Sound like something that could go on your Thanksgiving table? If so you’ll be supporting a local family living their dream and you’ll be drinking in tune with the true and often uncomfortable aspects of American history. (Should we talk about how the beverage made with abolitionist apples was almost wiped out by Prohibition?) But most of all, you’ll be drinking very well indeed.
Where to buy: a list of bottle-shops and upcoming farmers' market events and tastings