In most respects, Fishkill Farms operates like any of the dozens of sustainable family farms that dot New York’s Hudson River Valley. Each morning, a team of workers heads out into the field to plant and prune back weeds, or tend to the farm’s 50 acres of fruit trees. Nearby, chickens busily peck at the grass around their mobile coop, enriching the soil as they go, and laying eggs with yolks like ripe tangerines. Unlike its neighbors, however, Fishkill Farms has an unusual Jewish history — one that, it turns out, is remarkably well suited for the Rosh Hashanah table.
Nearly a century ago, in 1913, 22-year-old Henry Morgenthau Jr. acquired a 1,000-acre apple orchard and dairy farm. Farming was an unusual choice of profession for the only son of a wealthy Jewish businessman and ambassador raised in New York City. But despite his father’s expectation that he join the family real estate company, Morgenthau decided to leave his architectural studies at Cornell University (he would later return to study agriculture) and follow a calling to work the land. Over the next decade and a half, he grew more than 10 different varieties of apples at Fishkill Farms, favoring the tart and tender-fleshed McIntosh above all. He and his wife, Elinor, toiled diligently — organizing canning clubs for the township’s women and even shortening their honeymoon so that they could make it home for spring planting. In 1922, Morgenthau purchased American Agriculturist magazine and split his time among the publication’s offices in New York City, his farm and the printing plant upstate in nearby Poughkeepsie.
Morgenthau would, of course, eventually return to the public sphere — as chairman of the Federal Farm Board and then as the U.S. secretary of the Treasury under his good friend, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But according to a family history written by Henry Morgenthau III, “Mostly Morgenthaus” (Ticknor & Fields, 1991), his father always identified himself as a farmer above all. And without a doubt, his greatest passion was apples: “He loved nothing better than to ride horseback through the rows of apple trees at all seasons.”
Despite his Bavarian-Jewish heritage, Henry Morgenthau was not a religious man. He would play a key role in the American government’s effort to rescue European Jews during and after World War II, and later worked extensively with Jewish philanthropies and Israeli causes.
Still, his son, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, says that his father never made the explicit connection between his beloved orchards and the Jewish New Year. “My father believed that what you did for people is more important than what you pray,” he said. Regardless, his father certainly understood — perhaps better than most people — how an apple embodies the spirit of autumn and the sense of seasonal flux, which helps give Rosh Hashanah its emotional power.
At the time, Morgenthau’s path away from the Ivy League and toward the farm was certainly regarded as curious, and possibly irresponsible, by wider society. In retrospect, however, he stands as an inspiring predecessor for today’s growing movement of college-educated 20- and 30-somethings who eschew office-based professions in order to grow food — like his grandson, Josh.
Two years ago, Josh Morgenthau — a 25-year old painter and Yale graduate — came to Fishkill Farms to be its full-time manager. Here’s how it happened: Josh’s father, Robert Morgenthau, shares his father’s deep love of Fishkill Farms and, like his father once did, spends nearly every weekend there. Still, he never farmed professionally, so when the farm’s long-term caretaker retired a decade ago, the orchard fell into disrepair. Luckily, Josh, who has fond childhood memories of “making and bottling cider” with his dad, was intrigued by the unique opportunity to paint agricultural landscapes, and agreed to step in and take over the “family business.”
With the help of his girlfriend, Hannah Geller, and a small team of dedicated young farmers, Josh Morgenthau has begun to revitalize Fishkill Farms. Focusing on sustainable growing practices, they cultivate more than 15 different types of apples, including his grandfather’s favorite, McIntosh, and a few heirloom varieties. They also grow pears, cherries, peaches and several other types of fruit; keep a flock of laying chickens, and recently planted a five-acre organic vegetable farm. Fishkill Farms’ produce makes its way to customers via farmers’ markets in Brooklyn and upstate in Beacon, and through the farm’s on-site stand and U-pick operations. Josh Morgenthau said that farm traffic increases dramatically in September and October when the apple harvest — and, not coincidentally, the High Holy Days — are in full swing. “It is such a blur,” he said. “All of a sudden, thousands of people begin cycling through.”
Just two years into his farming career, he represents the next generation in a family deeply committed to both public service and stewardship of the land. Whether he ultimately decides to make farming his life’s work or a stop along the path remains to be seen — but that is ultimately beside the point. “There is something incredibly fulfilling about the work of coaxing food from the earth,” Morgenthau said. “I don’t know if I would call it spiritual, but the connection with forces outside of your control definitely feels very humbling.” Somewhere, a proud grandfather is smiling.
Leah Koenig writes a monthly “Ingredients” column on food for the Forward. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
6 baking apples (e.g. Empire, Rome, Idared, Stayman, Mutsu, Jonagold or another tart, firm-fleshed apple)
6 teaspoons maple syrup or honey
1/3 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup raisins
2 cups apple cider/juice
approximately 2 teaspoons cinnamon
6 tablespoons butter
1). Preheat oven to 375°.
2). Using an apple corer or a small paring knife, core several large baking apples (for example, Empire, Rome, Idared, Stayman, Mutsu, Jonagold or another tart, firm-fleshed apple). Make sure not to pierce straight through the apple — aim to leave at least 3/4 of an inch of flesh at the bottom.
3). With a knife or a vegetable peeler, peel a ring around the opening at the top of each apple. Using the tip of a sharp knife, pierce the apples shallowly several times around their circumference.
4). Place the apples in as small a baking pan as can fit them without them touching. Pour a teaspoon of maple syrup or honey into the cavity of each apple, and then stuff with a mixture of about 2 parts raisins to 1 part brown sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. Pour apple cider or juice (water is okay) over each apple until it overflows a bit into the pan. Then finish each apple with a teaspoon of butter atop the raisins and brown sugar.
5). Place baking pan in oven, and bake for about 40 minutes (or until the apples are tender but not mushy). After 20 minutes or so, you can periodically take a spoon and baste the apples with juices from the pan, or with more cider. When the apples are done, remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Note: If you are preparing this dessert for a kosher meat meal, simply omit the butter and serve with pareve ginger snaps instead of ice cream.