In the Apple Orchard
The Red Delicious was discovered in Iowa in 1874 when a farmer repeatedly cut down a young apple tree only to have it reemerge the next season. Finally, figuring that anything that struggled against death so persistently might have a good reason to live, he tended the tree, grew the fruit, and entered it in competition at a state fair, where it won first prize. Later, a powerful nursery family from Missouri, the Stark Brothers, bought the Hawkeye (the apple's original name) and turned it into the ubiquitous, mediocre apple that it is today. After World War II, the Red Delicious became the staple of many growers, its classic shape and deep cherry color becoming synonymous with the American ideal of an apple. But we all know what it tastes like. It is, to borrow a phrase, a "gorgeous fraud"-- the skin is thick and bitter and the fruit soft, sweet, and lacking in the tartness most apple growers and cooks find synonymous with a good eating apple.
The tale of the Red Delicious is one of serendipity-- a tree grows from a chance seedling, barely escapes with its life, and then goes on to become the best-selling apple in history. But the tale of America's apple industry is less romantic. In the 19th century, apples were grown and consumed locally, with literally thousands of varieties on the market. Some apples were as small as cherries, some as large as grapefruit; some were pale white in appearance and others almost black; some even looked like potatoes and others like a sheep's nose (the Yellow Sheepnose). The Watermelon apple had bright red fruit, the Court Pendu Plat had rough, scabby skin (it would never sell today) but also a unique pecanlike sweetness, and others had lyrical names: Maiden Blush, Rainbow, Newtown Pippin, Wolf River, Fallawaters, Red Winter Pear-main, Summer Banana, and Esopus Spitzenberg. It was an industry that reflected the spirit of 19th-century America-a diversity of tastes and regions served by hard-working entrepreneurs who grafted and planted, fought scab and mildew, and battled the devastation wreaked by the apple moth and plum curculio, insects that had to be laboriously shaken from trees rather than killed easily through spraying.
In this half century, all that has changed. An industry spokesperson once told me, "There are only three kinds of apples in America today: red, yellow, and green." He meant that supermarket buyers know that consumers purchase on looks alone, the classic case of beauty only being skin deep. They prefer dark green Granny Smith apples (Grannies came from Australia, and there once was a real Granny Smith) to light ones, yet the paler, somewhat yellow-skinned specimens are actually riper and sweeter. A collection of 19th-century apples would be a study in diversity; a crate of modern supermarket apples would be almost indistinguishable except for color: they all have the same shape, size, and smooth, glossy skin. Although not all "heirloom" apples were worth saving-- many were bitter, had tough skin, or didn't store well-- the apple business today is one of DNA engineering, no longer subject to the serendipity of a chance seed beating the odds to become a Golden Delicious or a McIntosh.
But we sometimes forget that there is more to apples than taste and texture. For Carlos Manning, who works 12-hour shifts at a mine in West Virginia, antique varieties have become a way of life. A few years back he had a craving for Red Winter Pearmain apples, he bought some seedlings, but the fruit didn't taste the same. He turned into an apple detective, seeking grafts from old trees that still bore good fruit. He has saved the Red Ben Davis apple, the Duchess of Oldenburg, the Rainbow, and, of course, the Red Winter Pearmain, which he found still growing in his great grandfather's abandoned orchard.
Like Manning, good cooks are hungry for taste but also for experience. In seeking that which is pleasing to the palate, the adventurous among us take walks in old orchards, grafting new experiences onto old, discovering bits and pieces of the past in the gnarled branches of old trees. In my Vermont orchard, I have come to realize that apples are mostly about trees, not fruit, about weather and early frosts, about drought and high winds, about plentiful years and those with poor harvests. I have planted a young tree for each of my four children: a Macoun for Whitney, a Northern Spy for Caroline, a Cortland for Charlie, and a Liberty for young Emily. We'll tend them together and watch them grow, making mistakes, to be sure, but planning the best we can for their future as well as ours. And when they are mature, we will have memories of the growing, of a time when we were young and the trees and the children were yet to take root, their immature scions still fragile but upstanding on a crisp April morning, yet to be tested by the weight of September's heavy fruit.