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An Excerpt from Apples of Uncommon Character

Written by Sky Barsch on . Posted in Taste of the Landscape, Web Exclusives

Apples_HCEditor’s note: We interviewed Vermonter and James Beard Award-Winning Author Rowan Jacobsen in the Autumn 2014 issue of Vermont Life about his latest book, “Apples of Uncommon Character.” The following is an excerpt from his work. 


Ten years ago, my wife and I bought a neglected 1840s farmhouse in Calais, Vermont. For my wife, the attraction was the wide, worn floorboards and the classic Cape lines. For me, it was the four acres of meadows. Both of us liked the sense of continuity, the fact that you could look at any of the old maps in the town clerk’s office and find our little black square with a name penciled beside it. S Laird on the 1858 Beers Atlas; TJ Porter on the 1895. Although we hadn’t known any of the previous owners, that sense of continuity was particularly strong on the day in September when we closed on the house. We drove to the house and walked around, pinching ourselves. It was crisp and sunny, blustery with the first hints of fall, and the line of gnarled trees on the east side of the house were sporting colorful orbs of fruit. Although I hadn’t noticed when we’d first looked at the house during summer, they were all apple trees.

I had grown up in Vermont in the 1970s, where I’d learned that the McIntosh was the be-all and end-all of apples. Although it was clearly a step up from the Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples in the supermarket, I still thought the mushy, thick-skinned Mac was pretty awful, and I’d crossed apples off my life list.

But the apples hanging in these trees didn’t look like any I’d ever seen in a store. In one tree, they were large, round, and striped red and yellow like little beach balls. In another, they were brown and fuzzy, more like miniature Asian pears than what I thought an apple was supposed to be. I tried one. It was strangely dry, yet very sweet, crunchy, and nutty. A third tree was full of misshapen fruits speckled with red and orange over a background swirl of greens and yellows. I picked one of these, found a relatively un-scabby section, and bit into it. 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.

That fall, driving the back roads of Calais, I began to notice that an extraordinary number of the trees along the roadsides were wild or abandoned apples. Every few hundred yards, the road would be scattered with little green apples, or big yellow ones, or nearly black ones. I took to sampling every tree I could reach. Quite a few were spitters, so sour and astringent that I couldn’t even pretend to enjoy them, but a significant minority were not. Some tasted like pineapple, some like anise, and they were so much more interesting than apples I’d tasted before that I couldn’t believe it. The world was littered with fascinating fruit! Free for the taking! It was as if an apple-centric civilization had passed from existence, and I was living amid the ruins.

Which was, in a sense, exactly what had happened. Apple culture was a huge part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American life. There were few national apples, but endless regional ones, each adapted to the local climate and needs, iconic apples like Rhode Island Greening and Roxbury Russet in New England, Newtown Pippin in New York and Pennsylvania, Winesap and Hewe’s Crab in the Southeast; Black Twig and Arkansas Black in the Mississippi River Valley; Ben Davis and Rome Beauty in the Midwest; Sierra Beauty and Gravenstein on the West Coast. Each one had been propagated because it did something superb. Some came ripe in July, some in November. Some held their shape in pies. Some started off hard and sour, but sweetened outrageously after a few months in your root cellar. Some had purple skin so full of tannins that eating one was like biting into a bar of soap, but if you pressed it and let the juice ferment in your basement all winter, it produced a dry, fragrant cider—the default buzz of agrarian America.

The New York minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, whose delightful essay on apple pie can be sampled in small servings throughout this book, described a typical mid-nineteenth-century cellar thus: “On the east side stood a row of cider barrels; for twelve or twenty barrels of cider were a fit provision for the year,—and what was not consumed for drink was expected duly to turn into vinegar, and was then exalted to certain hogsheads kept for the purpose. But along the middle of the cellar were the apple-bins; and when the season had been propitious, there were stores and heaps of Russets, Greenings, Seeknofurthers, Pearmains, Gilliflowers, Spitzenbergs, and many besides, nameless, but not virtueless.”

The flavors of these apples ran the gamut, from lemon tart to pumpkin sweet, with lots of citrus, pineapple, and spice notes to bolster that classic apple scent. The shapes and colors were equally diverse. The Black Oxford looked like a plum. The Knobbed Russet looked like the love child of a toad and a potato. The Sheepnose looked like…well, you guessed it.

Where did such diversity come from? To our modern eyes, it all seems suspiciously like the work of some genetic engineer who took the innocent apple genome and slipped in a gene from a strawberry or a clown fish, but in fact all the genetic tinkering was done by the apple itself during its evolutionary journey from the wild forests of Kazakhstan to the fields of Europe and America. The apple has a large genome full of recessive genes and genetic switches. In every apple seed, the genetic deck is reshuffled, and many traits that were invisible in the parent may suddenly turn up in the child, or vice-versa. What this means is that apples do not come true from seed. If you grow a tree from a McIntosh seed, it will have half the genes of its McIntosh mommy, and half the genes of its deadbeat dad (delivered as a pollen grain attached to the hairy body of a bee), but its apples won’t resemble either parent’s. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but the next generation of apples will be, genetically speaking, a million miles away. Such “seedling” trees line the dirt roads, stone walls, cellar holes, and overgrown fields of rural America.

Although the vast majority of these seedlings produced little more than hog feed, every now and then something special happened. When a farmer recognized the quality in one of these chance seedlings, he would snip off a shoot and graft it onto the living rootstock of another apple tree. The shoot, known as a “scion,” provides the blueprint for all the apples produced by that tree, which will be an identical clone of the original. A few years of such grafts, and the farmer might have a whole orchard of that new fruit. Then his neighbors would ask for grafts of his tasty apples, often naming them after the original farm or farmer. This is how apple varieties come into existence. Every McIntosh is a graft of the original tree that John McIntosh forgot to cut down on his Ontario farm in 1811, or a graft of a graft. Every Granny Smith stems from the chance seedling spotted by Maria Ann Smith in her Australian compost pile in 1868.

O Pioneers!

The cradle of all domestic apples is the Tian Shan, or Heavenly Mountains—jagged, 20,000-foot peaks that divide Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from the deserts of western China. On the temperate western foothills of the Tian Shan, the apple evolved millions of years ago. It grew fat and sweet to appeal to bears and horses (still two of its biggest fans), who would disperse the seeds in their guts. Then humans came along, and the apple hit pay dirt. The Silk Road that ran from imperial Rome to the Chinese capital at Xi’an cut straight through the Tian Shan passes, where wild apple seeds easily hitchhiked in the bellies of the traders and their mounts. Soon the apple had become an integral part of the culture of both Europe and Asia.

The Romans understood the art of grafting and had their favorite varieties of apples, some of which may still be with us today. Monasteries carried the art, and the apples, through the Dark Ages, and apple culture flowered in northern France and England. But the apple reached its peak of diversity in the United States. As they settled farms, America’s colonists planted millions of apple seeds. Most of these settlers didn’t understand the basics of grafting, much less that of apple genetics, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they had; apple seeds are much easier than living shoots to transport by sailing ship or wagon, and apple seeds were all they had access to. Besides, most of those early trees were destined to feed the fermentation barrel or the pig, neither of which was too choosy. Most of those first seedlings from English and French varieties fared poorly in America’s frigid winters and scorching summers, but every now and then a seedling flourished, and a few of those produced fruit that was too good for the hogs. Those were the ones propagated by the settlers—the world’s first truly American apples. (Roxbury Russet, born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the early 1600s, has the distinction of being the first.) A few hundred years of seed-spitting, core-chucking, and grafting took care of the rest. In the steamy South, certain varieties showed an affinity for heat and humidity no one in Europe could ever have suspected.

The apple’s biggest break came with the opening of the frontier, as Thoreau recognized: “Our Western emigrant is still marching steadily toward the setting sun with the seeds of the apple in his pocket, or perhaps a few young trees strapped to his load. At least a million apple-trees are thus set farther westward this year than any cultivated ones grew last year.” Quite a few of those seeds were planted by John Chapman, a.k.a. “Johnny Appleseed,” who traveled the Ohio Valley a few years ahead of most settlers, establishing seedling nurseries throughout the region to meet the settlers’ needs.

John Bunker, the founder of Maine’s Fedco Trees and one of the foremost champions of heirloom apples, likes to call this period the Great American Agricultural Revolution. “When this all happened,” he says, “there was no USDA, no land-grant colleges, no pomological societies. This was just grassroots. Farmers being breeders.” A typical homestead might have a dozen different apple varieties, ensuring a source of fruit and drink throughout the year, as well as vinegar for preservation. Eventually, there were more than 16,000 different named apples in the nursery catalogs, though some of these were undoubtedly multiple names for the same apple.

Then industrial agriculture crushed that world. As orchards grew bigger and bigger, the small family orchard became unprofitable. Prohibition made cider apples useless. National supermarkets and distributors demanded consistent supplies of identical apples that would be familiar to everyone, and the giant orchards springing into being, mostly out west, were happy to comply. Of those thousands of nineteenth-century varieties, a mere six (Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, Macintosh) came to dominate the market. Not long ago, three-quarters of the apples grown in America were Red Delicious, an apple bred for its intense red color at the expense of texture and taste. Every tree was genetically identical, monocropped on a massive scale in the sun-soaked deserts of eastern Washington. American consumers brought this disaster upon themselves by consistently choosing the redder apple over the tastier one.

As more and more families moved to the city, fewer had exposure to any apples except the ones in the supermarket. Children never knew that an apple could be anything more than a ball of red or green cardboard. The Age of the Apple had ended. 

The Apple Sleuths

But apple trees are very patient beings. It’s nothing for them to wait a hundred years, even two hundred, asking for nothing, and, like the Giving Tree in Shell Silverstein’s book, waiting patiently for the boy to return. There is a bent old Black Oxford tree in Hallowell, Maine, that is 214 years old and still gives a crop of midnight-purple apples each fall.

In places like northern New England, the Appalachian Mountains, the Finger Lakes, and the Ohio Valley—agricultural hotspots that have thus far escaped the bulldozer—the old centenarians and double-centenarians hang on, on abandoned farms, or near the sign for the subdivision that went up around them, or on the orchards of a handful of preservationists who kept quietly grafting the old trees, just because. Often their identity is lost on the present landowners. “That great period of agriculture is now just far enough into the past that the last few of the old, old varieties are dying out,” John Bunker says. “Are they going to be important in the future? We don’t know. But they might be. And if we’re going to save this stuff and give it to future generations, we’d better do it now.”

Bunker’s love affair with apples dates to 1972, when he began farming a hardscrabble plot of land in the town of Palermo after graduating from Colby College. That first fall, he noticed the apples ripening all over town, trees that had been started decades ago and were now in their primes, yet mostly went ignored. So he began picking them. “I felt like these trees I was finding in my town, and then eventually all over Maine and other places, were a gift to me by someone whom I had never met, who had no idea who I was, who had no idea that I was ever going to be. Over time, I started thinking, I got to come to earth and have this amazing experience of all these trees that were grown and bearing, and all these oldtimers who would take me out into their fields and show me things and take me on trips down these old roads. I would knock on somebody’s door, and next thing you know I’m eating with them. It was like gift after gift after gift. And I started thinking, Do I have any responsibilities with this? Or do I just soak it up and let it go?”

So he founded Fedco Trees, which specializes in rare heirlooms, the goal being to make them less rare. When he finds one of these links to a world more diverse and flavorful than our own, he grafts it onto rootstocks at the Fedco nursery and begins selling the trees a few years later. Over the past thirty years he has saved at least eighty varieties from oblivion. His forensic methods involve everything from studying the depth of the cavity around the stem, to checking the trunk for grafting scars, to poring over old nursery catalogs and historical records. He hangs “Wanted” posters at corner stores in the towns where the apples originated, hands them out at Historical Society meetings. A typical poster reads “WANTED ALIVE: NARRAGANSETT APPLE. Last Seen in York County!…Originated on the farm of Jacob H Harmon, Buxton, Me., in 1873.” Then, after a drawing and description of the apple, “If you Know the Whereabouts of This Apple Please Contact Fedco.”

One of Bunker’s best finds was the Fletcher Sweet, which he knew originated in the Lincolnville area. In 2002, he met a group from the Lincolnville Historical Society. They had never heard of the apple, but they knew of a part of Lincolnville called Fletchertown, which, like so many other old villages in northern New England, had since been reclaimed by the forest. The society posted a note in the local paper saying it was looking for an old apple called a “Fletcher.” A 79-year-old named Clarence Thurlow called the paper and said, “I’ve never heard of a Fletcher, but I know where there’s a Fletcher Sweet.”

Thurlow led Bunker to the dirt intersection that had once been the heart of Fletchertown, pointed to an ancient, gnarled tree, and said, “That’s the tree I used to eat apples from when I was a child.” The tree was almost entirely dead. It had lost all its bark except for a two-inch-wide strip of living tissue that rose up the trunk and led to a single living branch about eighteen feet off the ground. There was no fruit. Bunker took a handful of shoots and grafted them to rootstock at his farm. A year later, both Clarence Thurlow and the tree died, but the grafts thrived, and, a few years later, bore the first juicy, green Fletcher Sweet apples the world had seen in years. “It’s a great apple,” says Bunker. “It has a super-duper distinctive flavor.” Today, Bunker has returned young Fletcher Sweet trees to Lincolnville.

This is the magic of apples. You can’t take a graft of Clarence Thurlow and grow a new one, but his tree was easily duplicated and returned to contemporary cultural life. Today, I can take a bite out of a Fletcher Sweet and know exactly what Clarence Thurlow was experiencing as a boy eighty years ago. I can chomp into a Newtown Pippin and understand why Thomas Jefferson exulted to James Madison from Paris that “they have no apples here to compare with our Newtown Pippin.” 

The New Golden Age

While John Bunker was doing his thing in Maine, others were doing the same in different regions of the country—tracking down tantalizing leads, grafting old trees, swapping specimens with their English counterparts, expanding their preservation orchards. Predictably, what they were doing had been so uncool for so long that it suddenly became very cool. We were all so bored by the sameness of supermarket fruit that the sight and taste of iconoclastic apples hit us like a jolt of tart cider.

Around the time I bought my farmhouse, my local co-op became filled each fall with the craziest collection of apples I’d ever seen. There were tiny ones and russet ones and those unmistakable Sheepsnoses, and they carried names straight out of a Dickens novel: Esopus Spitzenburg, Ashmead’s Kernel, Belle de Boskoop, Ribston Pippin. The apples were being grown by a gnomic man named Zeke Goodband, who sported an earring, a waterfall of a beard like a Chinese sage, and a lifelong devotion to apples. Zeke had transformed Scott Farm, an orchard in southern Vermont that was the home of Rudyard Kipling, into one of the great working heirloom orchards in the country. The eighty varieties at Scott Farm are, to me, as fine a collection of artistic masterpieces as you’d find in any museum, just as moving and thought-provoking, and Zeke is a superb curator. But the difference between Zeke’s apples and museum pieces is that they are a living part of the culture. You can take a chunk out of a Pinova, but that’s discouraged with a Picasso.

Zeke’s apples are doing for market shoppers throughout New England what Fedco Trees is doing for home gardeners: Expanding our understanding of what an apple could be. That trend keeps gaining steam, and we are now in what I can confidently declare to be the Second Age of the Apple. We have more varieties of extraordinary apples within reach—through mail-order suppliers, farmers markets, pick-your-own orchards, and enlightened grocers like Whole Foods—than any people who have come before us. And by no means are they all heirlooms. The new generation of consumers has shown an enthusiasm for novel apples, and the commercial apple world has responded with an outpouring of creativity. Some of the newer stars of the produce aisle, like Gala and Honeycrisp, would have been as passionately embraced by our homesteading forebears as they have been by us. They are damned fine apples, and even if they were the product of controlled crosses at university breeding programs, they still came into existence in the old-fashioned way: As a seedling that proved its mettle over thousands of rivals.

In fact, as you look at the apples in this book and learn their stories, one of the things that will become clear is that each was a one-in-a-million shot. Nobody has planted seedling orchards since Johnny Appleseed’s time, so each tasty new variety represents a double miracle: First, that it was dealt a genetic royal flush; and second, that it survived long enough to produce fruit that somebody noticed. Thoreau recognized this a century and a half ago: “Every wild-apple shrub excites our expectation thus, somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise.” To me, that gives every apple variety a storybook personality. It often took a hurricane or a switched-at-birth mix-up—some unlikely act of fate that set it on its own Dickensian arc—to give it a shot at all. Each apple prince is the hero of its own tale. Each has something different to say about being living creatures in the world.

This book is here to give a tantalizing taste of the fruit with the ultimate range. Pick your way through these piles of colorful orbs, their skins aswirl in red, orange, yellow, green, and purple, and you will get a sense of the many things an apple can be, the many roles it can play in your life. If there is one particular lesson the apple has to teach us, it is that the world is full of endless possibilities. The apple never met a landscape it couldn’t partner with, never saw an opportunity it didn’t relish. Like Molly Bloom, it almost always says yes. 

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