The mention of crabapples reminds me of a beautiful Christmas-time display I saw at the Concord History Museum years ago. The museum has since changed names and been substantially renovated, but in those days it was rustic. The image which has stayed with me was of a Colonial home decorated for a winter dinner, and in the middle of a plain pine table, amid table settings of pewter, was a wooden bowl filled with crabapples and pine boughs. It was striking in its simplicity and beauty.
For all their beauty, though, crabapples aren’t eating apples. The trees are grown for their blossoms, and the fruits are sometimes considered incidental. That’s not fair – in the past many apple varieties were cultivated for making cider rather than eating out of hand, and crab apples are good for this when mixed with other varieties (the best pies and the best ciders are made of blends of apples rather than simply one kind.)
As the name suggests, crabapples are sour. Feeling crabby? Think of the face associated with someone who’s feeling that way, and that’s the kind of face you’ll make if you bite into one. Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay on wild apples in which he described crabapples as “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” Indeed.
However, because like other apples, crabapples are high in pectin, they’re excellent used alone or in conjunction with other fruits to make jellies, jams, and apple butter. In going through some of my cookbooks, especially the older ones, I also found recipes for pickles, as well as crabapple puffs (pastries filled with crabapple jelly) and the suggestion that they add a tang to cobblers and puddings. I have a memory of crabapple pickles… did my mom make those or did she buy them? I know she pickled the neighbor’s hard unripe pears, and they were similar; both are made with vinegar, sugar or honey, cinnamon, cloves, and maybe allspice, too.
Apparently they’re still commercially made; Zingerman’s, for one, carries them. There are many recipes online, though. If you’re a fan of relishes, you might like to try your hand at making a batch. They’re tasty served with cheese or pork, and they’d be a perfect accompaniment to Thanksgiving dinner either by themselves or together with cranberry relish.
Now, having written all this, I must add that the last book I checked – a more recent one – lists a variety of crabapple (there are lots more than just one, but we don’t usually find the edible ones identified), called the Hewes, which is described as a favored eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cider variety high in sugar, high in acid, with a sharp delicious flavor, that’s good for eating raw, roasting, and applesauce. You might want to try to identify the variety you have and research its characteristics. Or just experiment with cooking a few and see what you think about their qualities.