No pear inspired more controversy among pomologists in the 19th century. A hard, grainy pear whose qualities as a cooking pear or fresh pear inspired strong disaggreements, from outright condemnations by horticulturist Charles M. Hovey, to eloquent commendations, particularly among southern growers, who viewed it as a staple—more productive, more certain of making harvest, and more long-lived on the shelf than buttery European Pears.
The pear was a natural cross between an Asian Sand Bear and a Bartlett discovered nurseryman Peter Kieffer outside of Philadelphia in 1868. The Kieffer Pear made its public debut in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, where the fruit committee commended it as harbinger of “a new race of pears of great excellence” (“Kieffer’s Hybrid Pear,” The American Farmer (March 1880), 101). The promise that hung about the pear emanated from one virtue of the pear particularly—its immunity to the pear blight that was ravaging the orchards of America in the mid-nineteenth century. The Kieffer possessed the qualities that made Americans grow the hard Sand Pears—productivity, ornamental beauty, and vigor. But it was less hard, less late in the season and more dulcet when processed. So as orchard after orchard of Anjou and Doyenne d’Ete pears expired, the Kieffer appeared as the best option forward. Pomologist Charles Downing insisted it was “of very good quality,” the editor of the American Farmmer offer the following laudatory tasting notes: “Flesh fine grained, juicy, sugar and aromatic. T. Meechan siad he equaled any he had every eaten in terms of “luciousness.” But it did not have the buttery quality when eaten fresh plucked from the tree of a European Pear. It needed to be mellowed some weeks in a storage house for it to come to full quality. For Charles M. Hovey this was an unforgiveable liability. He insisted it was inferior to all 800+ pear varieties he had tasted in his career as judge of the American Pomological Association, , including the rejected varieites.
The agricultural jourals of the 1880s were filled with articles such as “The Kieffer Pear. Conflicting Opinions” (The Rural New Yorkers Report of 1883). It responded to terroir in ways more changeable than other pears in the estimation of many. (It was determined that it prospered to slightly acidic well drained soils; that it needed more than 350 Chill hours.) It tasted better than the Sand Pear—most agreed on that—but lacked the luciousness and melting quality of the Anjou, the hallmark of taste.
Image: "U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705" Royal Steadmann, 1925.
David S. Shields