The Northern Spy apple was one of four varieties that the post office honored with their own stamp in 2013 reminding us that “Spies are for Pies”. According to the USPS website that little rhyme is a reminder that generations of cooks have found the Northern Spy apple delicious when baked in desserts. Its tart, tangy taste makes it less of a favorite for eating in hand, but it stores well and tends to last longer because of its late season. This variety is also good for cider and juice.
The people around Bloomfield and Rochester, New York say it was named by the locals after the hero of a dime store novel, The Northern Spy. According to Conrad D. Gemmer, writing on the Out on a Limb Apples website, the book was written anonymously, published sub-rosa, and circulated among radical hard-core abolitionists circa 1830. In the story the hero organized a series of safe houses for runaway slaves to escape to Canada. Traveling to southern plantations, he pretends to be a slave catcher but instead secretly instructs slaves how to escape using his routes and safehouses. In the publication, and thirty years before the actual Civil War, the abolitionist hero is killed in Manassas, Virginia during an imaginary first battle of the “War to Free the Slaves.”
Unless you are from the Bloomfield area you probably don’t know that the Northern Spy is the fifteenth most popular apple variety in the States. That is where a bronze plaque marks the site of the original tree. The tree, unnamed at the time, was reportedly “discovered” around 1800. However, due to initial setbacks in successfully cultivating the tree, it was not until about 1830 before the Northern Spy trees bloomed and produced fruit commercially for the first time.