An Apple a Day For Waltby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I have never liked pumpkin pie. So, when it was time for Thanksgiving, my mom and dad always made sure there was a slice of pecan pie or apple pie for me to enjoy with my meal. I was always thankful to have that option.
I never realized at the time that Walt Disney preferred apple pie, as well, and, with the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it might be nice to share that recipe that made his mouth water. There is much more to Disney apples than that gleaming, poison-soaked beauty that is offered to the unsuspecting Snow White.
“There's apple pickles
Oh, so tasty!
Apple tarts and apple pastry
Apple dumplings, not to mention
Yes, and there's apple fritters
Light as thistle,
And for folks to wet their whistle
Tangy apple cider, my lad!
“Stew 'em, fry 'em, boil 'em, bake 'em,
Apple pie and apple cake'm
Yep, you can cook 'em any way!
“Apple this and apple that
The recipes would fill your hat
Why I could carry on like this all day!”
“The Apple Song” is from Johnny Appleseed (1948) one of the cartoons appearing in the compilation feature, Melody Time and was written by James “Kim” Gannon and Walter Kent (together they also wrote “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” in 1943). I much prefer their song "The Lord Is Good To Me" from the same animated featurette that also includes apple references, but I thought it would be more fun to share these more obscure lyrics to begin my exploration of Walt and apples.
In May 2001, as part of the “100 Years of Magic Celebration,” Walt Disney World chef Mary Schaefer, who was working at Disney's Contemporary Resort, talked for more than an hour on the phone with Walt’s daughter, Diane, about Walt’s culinary tastes in connection with desserts. High among Walt’s favorites were red Jell-O with small apple slices inside, baked apples, and, of course, most of all, home-style pie with apple being his top choice. If the famous saying that “you are what you eat” is really true, then it is no wonder that Walt was considered as American as apple pie.
Walt Disney loved apples and, like many things in his life, this love started back in Marceline, Mo.
In 1906, Walt’s father Elias was disturbed by many things happening in the rapidly growing city of Chicago and felt he needed a better environment to raise his family. He purchased a small 45-acre farm just outside of the town of Marceline, located about 90 miles northeast of Kansas City.
Robert Disney, Elias’ brother, already owned land nearby and that influenced Elias to sign the papers on March 5, 1906, a moment that changed forever the life of 4-year-old Walt Disney. While Walt only lived in that turn-of-the-century small town area for about five years, from the ages of 4-9, the influence of that magical time and place impacted the rest of his life.
The whitewashed farmhouse that Elias purchased on County Pike Road was already about 25 years old, built by a Civil War veteran. The first floor had four rooms (front parlor, back parlor, kitchen, and dining room) and the second floor had three bedrooms. The land also included a smokehouse, an outhouse and a huge red barn.
There was plenty of grazing land for cows, as well, as for raising crops like corn and wheat. In particular, there was an apple orchard and those trees had to be pruned and harvested by hand, something that even little Walt could help with during the course of his time there. Elias attempted to make some extra money by selling the juicy fruit the trees produced, but it did not generate any significant income.
Instead, to raise some additional funds, Walt’s mother Flora purchased cream from the Marceline Creamery Company to make her famous sweet, pure butter that she took to trade for groceries in Marceline and sell to neighbors. That butter was highly regarded and Walt was often drafted to help deliver the product door-to-door, much to his personal embarrassment.
The apple orchard was the scene for a traumatic encounter with an owl that gave Walt reoccurring nightmares throughout the rest of his life. I wrote about that encounter in an earlier column.
While the Disney home was shaded by weeping willows, cedars, and silver maples, it was the perfume of the apple blossoms in the orchard that tantalized young Walt.
“He always said apples never tasted so good as when they were picked off of the trees on the farm,” his wife, Lillian Disney, told an interviewer in her later years.
In the fall, the trees in the orchard hung heavy with crispy red Wolf River Apples, "so big that people came from miles around to see them," Walt recalled.
According to legend, a man named William Springer was emigrating from Quebec, Canada, to America. Along the way to Wisconsin, he bought apples, probably Alexander apples. He planted seeds from the apples when he arrived at his new farm along the Wolf River in Fremont, Wisc. The Wolf River apple sprang from one of those seeds and Springer noticed the new type of apple sometime before 1880.
While it is usually horticulturists who develop most apple cultivars, it was nature that produced the Wolf River Apple. A single seedling found from Central Wisconsin in the late 1800s is the ancestor of all the Wolf River apple trees in existence today.
The Wolf River apple, Malus "Wolf River" is best known for its large size, which can grow up to a 5-nch diameter fruit, roughly the size of a small pumpkin or a large grapefruit. People used to say that the apple was so enormous that only one was needed to bake an entire pie.
The Wolf River apple is pale yellow to green with carmine-red blushes and stripes. It is thick-skinned, tart, and aromatic with soft, tender, slightly mealy, creamy white flesh.
These huge fruits have been prized for years for baking, applesauce, and apple butter. In fact, this apple is mainly used for cooking, and it keeps its shape when cooked. It is fairly sweet and doesn't need much sugar added. It does not store well and is best eaten fresh if it hasn’t been off the tree too long.
Wolf River Apples have a very high natural resistance to the disease apple scab, and good resistance to fireblight and mildew. It is also very cold hardy, making it a good choice for growing in the northern part of North America. It usually ripens from mid-September to early October.
These apples were especially enjoyed not only by Walt, but were a favorite of his younger sister, Ruth.
Before her death in 1995, Ruth’s family donated almost 3,000 “artifacts” (letters, photos, diaries, etc.) to the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline. Kaye Malins, the museum’s curator who became friendly with Ruth in her final years, continues to showcase copies of these items (to save the originals from the dangers of light and heat) for appreciative visitors.
Among the gems are the letters that Walt wrote every Christmas to Ruth to let her know what he was doing.
From a letter Walt wrote to Ruth on December 6, 1961:
"We are working like Trojans on the new revamping for Disneyland. Right after New Years we will start construction in the Frontierland area on projects involving a Swiss family treehouse, New Orleans Square with a pirate museum, and, also, a haunted house with 1,001 ghosts.
Two of those ghosts ended up missing in action when the attraction officially opened some years later.
Also in these items was the Disney family recipe for apple pie prepared by Walt’s mother, Flora, that Ruth apparently saved and tried to re-create. Flora was well-known during her lifetime for her skill at cooking and baking.
I’ve shared some of Walt’s favorite recipes in an earlier column.
My late grandmother, who was born in Greece, made a type of powered sugar Greek wedding cookie called Kourabiedes that would literally melt in my mouth. My mouth just started to water as I wrote that sentence and recalled that experience. I remember how my mom would try to shadow Grandma as she went about her baking every holiday season in an attempt to try to document what she was doing. It was a hopeless task. All my mom had to do was to blink or turn away for a moment, and grandma would instinctively do something like toss in an extra pinch of salt or whatever if the mixture didn’t look quite right.
My mom valiantly tried to re-create that recipe after Grandma passed away, and, while the results were indeed delicious, they lacked that mysterious “something” that Grandma was able to produce just from instinct.
Keeping in mind that childhood memory, here are the written remains of Flora’s famous apple pie recipe that was saved as best it could be, but it may take a little culinary personality to bring out just exactly that taste-tempting treat that would always bring a smile to young Walt’s face.
Good luck and don’t forget to save me a big slice!
Flora Disney’s Deep Dish Wolf River Apple Pie
Cut up into nuggest size pieces 7-8 Wolf River Apples in a 2 quart bowl
2 cups of sugar
2-3 tablespoons of flour
1 teaspoon of cinamon
1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg
Mix well and let set while fixing crust.
3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of salt
Cut in about 1 1/8 cup of lard
In a cup mix:
1 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons water
Pour over flour mixture and mix.
Dough may be a little sticky—this is OK. Pinch off a handful of dough and roll out onto a clean flour cloth into a circle large enough to over cover sides and bottom of pie dish. Place into a 9-inch pie dish. Pour apple mixture into dish. Pinch off a small ball of dough and roll out on a clean flour cloth—this only needs to be the size of the opening of pie dish. Cut bird tracks into this piece of dough.
Place this on top of the apples, then pinch ends together—squeezing/pinching dough between forefinger and thumbs. Any juice left from apple mixture in bowl—sprinkle on top of pie—makes it prettier.
Cook for 1 hour at 350 degrees F.