Apples of Uncommon Character

If you like apples and love history then you’re going to love this new book, Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics,  by Rowan Jacobsen who makes the case that the apple renaissance we’re enjoying now is actually The Second Age of the Apple. The first “renaissance” first started back in the early 1700s, when seeds brought over from Europe by colonists multiplied like crazy in America. Unlike other fruits, apples “don’t need us at all,” Jacobsen writes. “They will run rampant through any temperate environment, metamorphosing endlessly.” What most folks don’t know is that when you plant an apple seed from, let’s say a Fuji apple you won’t get a Fuji. Yup that’s right, you’ll get and endless variety of new apples – some good and some not so good.

Settlers began grafting the very best of those trees — snipping a shoot off one tree, fusing it onto another, and ending up with a clone of the original. Turns out that this is the only way to get the same variety of apple. “Every Granny Smith,” Jacobsen tells us, “stems from the chance seedling spotted by Maria Ann Smith in her Australian compost pile in 1868.”

Even Thomas Jefferson was into this “rennaisance” focusing on four varieties of apples at his Monticello plantation — Esopus Spitzenburg, Newtown Pippin, Hewes Crab and Taliaferro. “They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown Pippin,” Jefferson wrote disparagingly, from Paris, of European fruit.

The apple’s biggest break came when Americans began to move west, Jacobsen explains. John Chapman (whom you might know better as Johnny Appleseed) helped establish nurseries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. It was a time of tremendous growth and experimentation; according to Jacobsen, there were some 7,500 American apple varieties.

But it wouldn’t last. The 20th century brought with it industrial-size orchards feeding national distributors who did not care to work with smaller farms or their “inconsistent” apples. Only a handful of apples — of the thousands once available in the 19th century — ever made it to the modern supermarket, Jacobsen says. The omnipresent Red Delicious apple was bred more for color than for taste.

John Bunker, founder of Fedco Trees, played a critical role in this second movement, Jacobsen says. He posts “Wanted” posters in towns in search of hard-to-find apples. Bunker has saved some 80 apple varieties that otherwise might have been lost.

A growing market for different kinds of apples has also spurred innovation from the apple industry. Jacobsen points to Gala and Honeycrisp as “recent stars of the produce aisle” that — though sometimes maligned by heirloom apple connoisseurs — he suspects would have been a hit among early American settlers. That said, there’s concern that “focus-grouped” apples are being cast in Honeycrisp’s image — sweet, crispy and juicy, but without much nuance.

300-page book devoted entirely to one fruit, there are some fairly creative descriptions, such as, “Like the Incredible Hulk, Mutsu is huge, green, and strangely lovable.” And, “Granite Beauty is like the Charles Bukowski of the apple world. It gives the feeling of dissolute existence brought on by life too deeply felt.”

When you reach the end of the profiles, you’ll find 20 applecentric recipes, a glossary of apple terms, and resources for “apple geeks” — like mail order trees, mail order fruit, cider-makers and annual apple festivals.

So grab a copy of his new book if you want to be the next trivia king or queen at an upcoming holiday party!

Article excepted from NPR Blog

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