When Rowan Jacobsen and his wife bought an old farmhouse in Calais, Vermont, he was not a fan of apples, having eaten only three wan supermarket varieties – Red Delicious (“more icon than fruit”), McIntosh (“interminable skin”) and Granny Smith (“as close to artificial as a real fruit could be”) — throughout his life.
But walking the perimeter of the property, Jacobsen discovered a row of apple trees, and he picked one and bit into it with the enthusiasm of Eve.
“Juice exploded into my mouth, fragrant with cinnamon and spice. It was heavenly, and I realized right then and there that I’d been missing out,” Jacobsen writes in Apples of Uncommon Character, the book born of that epiphany.
Conveniently, Jacobsen was already a food writer who had published an expansive ode to oysters, as well as a book about the decimation of American honeybees, among others. It was, then, a natural progression for Jacobsen to plunge into apple culture, which, he discovered was predominant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but retreated in the 1900s when mass production increased supply but diminished the product.
Thousands of varieties of apples were grown in the U.S. before Prohibition hit, but by late in the 20th century, most grocers stocked only six (Red and Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith and McIntosh). At one point, Red Delicious made up three-quarters of the country’s supply. “Every tree was genetically identical, monocropped on a massive scale in the sun-soaked (and irrigated) deserts of eastern Washington,” Jacobsen writes. “American consumers brought this disaster upon themselves by consistently choosing the redder apple over the tastier one.”
But we’re getting smarter in our food choices. A “Second Age of the Apple” is emerging because of local farmers’ markets, pick-your-own orchards and an expansive crop of nouveau American foodies. “Hard cider, too, is in a full-blown renaissance; there simply have never been as many superb ciders in existence, professional and amateur, as there are at this very moment,” Jacobsen says.
The author omits one factor that apple growers can thank for burgeoning interest in their wares: his book. It is the literary equivalent of the revelatory bite Jacobsen took at his new home, an enticement to learn more about a fruit grown ubiquitous to the point of boring. An hour with it will forever change how you shop for apples, and will make you a better cook and a significantly more interesting dinner-party guest.
Do you know, for example, what’s the best apple to use for strudel? It’s a Glockenapfel, an elongated apple that originated in Switzerland and remains common there and in Germany and Austria. It is, according to Jacobsen, “one Martha Stewart Living feature away from cult status” in the US.
How about the first true American apple, the Roxbury Russet, developed in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the early 1600s? Still popular in New England, the variety has suffered under an onslaught of competitors, but Jacobsen still recommends for eating fresh, though he calls its flavor “yummy and strange.”
Winesaps, originally called “Winesops,” make a “mischievous cider,” he says. The Bethel is “Blue Pearmain’s little brother, the less accomplished one that has slunk off to live in Vermont.” It withstands cold, but “at this point is simply holding on in a handful of spots along the northern tier of New York and New England, cozying up to boreal, self-reliant types, waiting for the grid to go down and its fortunes to rise again.”
New Hampshire’s Granite Beauty “looks like it just came off a bar fight,” he writes. “The network of pale scarring across the surface, as if you were viewing the Badlands from a plane; the strangely oily skin; the air of noble ruin; Mickey Rourke will play it in the film adaptation.”
And so it goes, for 123 varieties of apples, all photographed beautifully by Clare Barboza of Seattle. The prose is bright and engaging, disguising the fact that this is basically an encyclopedia of apples. No matter. Here’s Jacobsen explaining the history of the McIntosh, first grown near the US-Canadian border: “The original tree died in 1910 at the age of one hundred plus. At that time, the McIntosh was still merely a regional understudy, scrabbling at the edges of the industry like a little mammal waiting for the dinosaurs to croak.”
Apple trees are survivors. In Hallowell, Maine, there is a “bent old Black Oxford tree” that produces a crop of purple apples each year even though it is 215 years old. A cornucopia of facts like that, plus a cheerful evisceration of mass-market favorites (Granny Smith: “Does plastic fruit have a season?”) gives Apples of Uncommon Character equivalent staying power and assuages the steepness of its coffee-table price ($35). Moreover, there are recipes, including an apple-lime custard tart, baked apples with bourbon-soaked raisins, which looks great even if you hate raisins. Apple up.
Originally published in The Hippo.