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Mattamuskeet apples and a tradition of service and support

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, October 10, 2004

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Last week I took my two-year-old granddaughter across the street to gather some fruit from the apple tree in my neighbor's yard.

My visit to my neighbor's apple tree is a ritual about this time every year.

She enthusiastically sings a song about "shaking those 'simmons down" even though she has no idea what persimmons are. I thought it would be fun to see if she would understand the connection between gathering fruit and eating it.

My visit to my neighbor's apple tree is a ritual about this time every year.

My neighbor tells me he knows I am "stealing" a few of his small, gnarled, green apples, ones he says he seldom uses.

Even though his apples don't look much like the regular shaped, golden or red ones we buy at the grocery store these days, my granddaughter enjoyed picking them and helping me shake some down from the high branches.

As a part of my annual ritual, I peel a few of these apples, cut them up, remove the rotten parts and take out the worms. Then I throw them in a pan, cover them with sugar, butter and cake mix and bake them until the topping is brown. Usually, the cobbler tastes pretty good.

This year things turned out better than ever because I consulted Karen Barker's new dessert cookbook, "Sweet Stuff" and used brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves, and some cider to bring out the apples' flavor.

Why should I spend hours for just a bite of apple cobbler when I could so easily buy a frozen one, pop in the oven, and have it ready in just a few minutes?

One reason, of course, is that it is a good thing every now and then to do things the old fashioned way just to appreciate how nice and easy things are today. But because my neighbor's apple tree is a story in itself, this little ritual means even more to me.

The tree is a Mattamuskeet Apple variety, according to its owner, my neighbor H.G. Jones. Jones is a former curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of one of my favorite state history books, "North Carolina Illustrated: 1524-1984." Jones also served as director of the North Carolina Department of History and Archives.

The tree came to Chapel Hill as a young sapling from Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County. According to legend, the variety originated when the Mattamuskeet Indians, who once lived around the lake that bears their name, found the seeds in the gizzard of a wild goose. It is well adapted for the coastal region because it keeps well-perhaps because it is very acidic when first picked and then mellows in storage.

All this is important, but my love for this little apple tree has more to do with how and why it came to Chapel Hill.

Because he is a walking encyclopedia of North Carolina history, Jones got invitations to places all over the state to make presentations on local history.

Although he was regularly offered payment for his talks, Jones always refused. He explained to me that, as an employee of the state and the university, such visits were a part of his job.

"But," he once told me, "word got around that I would accept an apple pie. And most of the groups I spoke to would give me one to take home when I finished my talk."

A number of years ago, he was invited to make a presentation in Hyde County about the history of Lake Mattamuskeet and the surrounding region. Jones was surprised, he says, when after his talk, nobody presented him with the traditional apple pie.

A few days later, the Mattamuskeet Apple sapling arrived and was planted in his front yard. Adapted as it was for the coastal climate, the little tree nevertheless thrived in the Piedmont soils Chapel Hill. Today its branches reach up far above the utility lines that run along side the street. This time of year it produces such a bountiful harvest that H.G. Jones hardly misses the armloads that I "steal" from him to make my cobbler.

The cobbler is always tasty. But the special joy in my ritual of the Mattamuskeet Apple cobbler is its reminder of the service cheerfully given to North Carolina people in every part of the state by Jones and his university colleagues "because it is just part of the job."

There is something else, too. That Mattamuskeet Apple tree is a symbol for me of how the folks in Hyde County and every other community in the state have given to their university. When I see that tree I think how well those gifts of people and resources have grown and flourished in the university's fertile soil-and how much we all owe each other.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (October 17) guest is BJ Mountford, author of "Bloodlines of Shackleford Banks."

Programs coming up:

October 17: BJ Mountford, Bloodlines of Shackleford Banks

October 24: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

October 31: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

November 7: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

November 14: John May, Poe & Fanny

November 21: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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