Learn about the development of different apple varieties and the role of apples in American history.
Text and Illustration by Roger Yepsen
Cover courtesy Countryman Press
Apples (Countryman Press, 2017), by Roger Yepsen vividly describes the aroma, taste, texture and appearance of a variety of apples. This book takes a look at the classic apples and also incorporates fifteen newly popular ones. The following excerpt includes Chapter 1, “The Fruit of Legend and Lunchboxes,” and the following apples, “Baldwin," “Blushing Golden,” “Empire,” "Arkansas Black," and “Williams’ Pride."
Apples. Red, round, crisp, and cool.
The list of adjectives doesn’t have to stop there. The orchards of North America have produced some sixteen thousand varieties worthy of being named. Each has its characteristic hues, heft in the hand, flavors, aromas, crispness — all of which could be called the apple’s personality. Some apples seem mysterious and take time to get to know. Others can be as accessible as a carrot.
There are fruity apples tasting of banana, mango, pineapple, and pear, and spicy apples tasting of licorice, cinnamon, coriander, rue, and nutmeg. Apples can be had candy sweet or lemon sour, cleanly astringent or mild-mannered, and hard as a raw potato or messy as a peach.
The best-known varieties tend to be quite apple-like: round and smooth and with at least a red blush. But others are shaped like toy tops or lopsided old pillows and have skins that may look scarred to the unaccustomed eye. A few, such as the homely Knobbed Russet, don’t look like apples at all. Sizes vary from the crabs, just an inch across, to branch-bending giants the size of a baby’s head and weighing well over a pound.
Colors range from near white to humdrum beige to the deep, waxy near-black of a limo. And of course there are the reds in uncountable shades, patterns, and levels of opacity and luminosity. An apple’s red coat overlays a layer of yellow or ocher or green that will either set the apple ablaze or mute it. A Stayman’s red is transposed to a minor key by the green pigment below. But on a Winter Banana or Ozark Gold, the red blush acts like a lens, incandescing with the light that reflects up through it.
Until the 1800s, most orchards were casual groves of trees grown from seed. Because an apple seed doesn’t produce a replica of the parent, but only a rough facsimile, these orchards were full of individuals, each one distinct. Johnny Appleseed became a fixture of American folklore by offering apple seeds to anyone willing to stick them in the ground, but this genetic crapshoot likely produced few worthy trees. In time, only the very best of America’s apple trees were given names and propagated by grafting — the horticultural handicraft by which a bit of tree branch, called a scion, is spliced into a rooted tree. The scion will take sustenance from the tree, but grow true to the tree from which it was taken. This is the only way that varieties are perpetuated over the centuries. (Henry David Thoreau, the village contrarian of Concord, Massachusetts, lamented how grafting had changed the New England landscape, saying that he didn’t care for the rigid rank and file of look-alike trees.)
America was on its way to becoming a land of apple lovers. The favorite varieties of our colonial heroes have become often-repeated details of their biographies. George Washington’s most famous horticultural exploit was leveling a cherry tree, but as an adult he built a distillery for making apple brandy and was a fan of Newtown Pippins. Benjamin Franklin liked this apple so much that he had barrels of them shipped to England while lobbying there on behalf of the colonies. Perhaps the bit of trivia most associated with John Adams is that he is said to have begun each day with a tankard of hard cider. Thomas Jefferson identified Esopus Spitzenburg as his pick of the varieties grown in the hilly orchards of Monticello.
Sharp-eyed wanderers of fields and fencerows were alert to any stray tree that might be something special. Most of our better-known traditional varieties are such love children, the products of chance pollination between unknown parents. Each has its special talents: flavor, aroma, picking time, storability, resistance to disease. There were famous cider apples, baking apples, sauce apples, drying apples, and dessert apples.
Families would stock a succession of seasonal favorites from summer through late fall, when the long-keeping winter apples carried them through spring. One British visitor to the young United States marveled that apples were available eleven months of the year. And apples could be consumed year-round as hard cider, America’s most popular drink among rich and poor, young and old; apple butter; dried apples, known in Pennsylvania Dutch country as schnitz; and such all-but-forgotten items as boiled cider and cider jelly.
At rural kitchen tables, apple pies and tarts were served as routinely as bread. For families on hardscrabble farms in the Northeast, suppers through the winter might consist of nothing but apple pie and milk, day after day. For those with means, the better city restaurants served dessert apples in little individual boxes, stem and two leaves attached, with a card noting variety and grower. (Clearly, the “foodie” phenomenon is nothing new.) Apples were so much a part of the public consciousness that people came to be described in pomological terms: crabs, bad apples, apple polishers, apples of one’s eye. To describe the narrow, ingrown persona of small-town Americans, novelist Sherwood Anderson came up with “twisted apples.”
Writer and illustrator Eric Sloane enjoyed tramping around rural New England, and he came to see how central apples once were to making a life in a climate that could be forbidding. In his book A Reverence for Wood, he wrote, “Whenever you walk in the forest and you come upon an apple tree, stop and look about. Very likely you will see several others, too. And perhaps some ancient, stunted lilac bushes. Nearby there probably will be the ruins of an ancient house foundation, a cellar where apples were once stored, kept throughout the winter, fresh for the table before the heat of summer.”
Along a remote stretch of the long-abandoned Lehigh Canal in eastern Pennsylvania there grows an apple tree by the cellar hole of what had been a lock tender’s home. Well over a hundred years old, it continues to put out a few blossoms for the bees and a few apples for browsing deer. Its particular gifts, and potential promise, await someone with a pocketknife and a knack for grafting.
Of those sixteen thousand apples that once grew on this continent, only an estimated three thousand are still around. Of these survivors, some 81 percent have been classified as “endangered,” meaning that fewer than four nurseries continue to make the trees available to growers. And another 13 percent are said to be “threatened,” with between four and six nurseries handling them. These rarities include such charming oddballs as Bascombe’s Mystery, Stump of the World, and Horneburger Pancake (one slice, it was said, fills a pan).
How is it that we’ve squandered so much of that genetic wealth? One answer can be seen in our own backyards. While the home plot once produced a good deal of food for the family table — vegetable gardens, berry bushes, fruit trees, and perhaps a chicken shed or two — our principle crop today is lawn grass, with an unwelcome harvest of leaves to be raked each autumn. People began buying apples rather than going through the trouble of growing them, once refrigeration made it possible to ship apples long distances. With the advent of the supermarket, produce managers tended to stock only a few well-known varieties, particularly those that were red and rugged, rather than deal with a gaggle of local favorites.
Along the way, we’ve lost something of our apple connoisseurship. Emblematic of the change is Red Delicious, until recently America’s top banana. After being bred for an ever-deeper crimson, it became a marketer’s dream. Big Red didn’t win many taste tests, but the apples kept up their cheerful, lipstick red exterior even after the insides had turned to a mush tasting like old snow. Inspired by this variety’s success, government fruit experts strove to turn other, less glamorous apples into Delicious look-alikes, developing strains that were red and resilient. In 1959, a guide to commercial apple production coached growers that “sales may be increased 75 percent on the average by increasing the area of solid red color from 15 to 50 percent.”
Americans gradually forgot what a really good, fresh apple tastes like, much as they switched to artificially flavored maple syrup and citrus-flavored breakfast drinks. The industry ideal, says Tom Burford, an orchardist and consultant who had five hundred varieties growing around his Virginia farmhouse, was not simply a spotless fruit but the unvarying sheen of plastic. Growers became hooked on a regimen of spraying the daylights out of the few varieties that could be shipped anywhere and still come up shining. Or, almost shining. The industry began coating apples with waxy substances, in part to keep them from drying out but also because it was found that consumers would pay more for fruit with a glassy sheen.
So it was that orchardists began dropping apples that weren’t shiny, red, and iconically shaped. In the new order, a key advantage of a variety was that it have a long stem in order to permit better penetration by sprays. Another was that it be “typy,” industry lingo for an apple that closely mimics a nationally known variety and can ride on its coattails. And from a marketing point of view, it was more economically feasible to promote just a few chosen varieties than fritter away advertising dollars on a couple dozen. In New England, home to more pomological treasures than any other region of the continent, agricultural agents and growers agreed to focus on just seven varieties — seven, out of the hundreds that had been developed and tended for centuries. Countless older, idiosyncratic orchards were ripped out.
Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus/Magone
Fortunately, the apple saga doesn’t end there. Americans began looking beyond whiter-than-white bread, feeble diner coffee, and watery light beers. And in much the same way, they were curious about heirloom crops that had lapsed into obscurity: apples, along with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and pumpkins. It became clear that flawless red pigment on an apple’s skin is no guarantee of quality within. Recent surveys have confirmed that shoppers are increasingly receptive to apples of varying shades and textures. In fact, varieties with a conventional all-over red skin may be passed over by people who’ve come to associate variably striped apples (such as Gala and Braeburn) with superior taste and crunch.
Around North America, groups such as Slow Food USA are championing varieties in danger of slipping away, with conferences and festivals that alert the public to culinary treasures still available in their area. And then there are the unsung heroes: self-appointed apple detectives who explore back roads looking for varieties thought to have vanished. Tom Brown of Clemmons, North Carolina, has identified more than a thousand old-time apples considered extinct, including such rarities as Hog Pen, Iron Wedge, and Leather Britches, and he makes trees available to those who wish to help perpetuate these living antiques.
Since the first edition of this book came out, there has been a wave of new, highly promoted varieties with such catchy names as Jazz, Piñata, Pink Lady, SweeTango, and Zestar! (the exclamation point is part of that apple’s trademarked name and not the grammatical end of this sentence). To ensure quality, and also to limit quantities and command a premium price, the trees are only made available to a select group (or “club”) of growers, who typically pay a royalty or licensing fee.
Club varieties have their own perky Facebook pages and websites. Click on a headphone icon on the site for Jazz, and you are treated to a recording of someone biting into that variety. As with other areas of the food industry, the goal is now to present food as entertainment. Briana Shales, communications manager at Stenmilt, the company that controls the growing and marketing of Piñata and SweeTango, describes how apples are now introduced to the supermarket shopper. “Demonstrations and samplings are really important,” she says. “Consumers want to try it before they buy it. But that’s OK.”
Overall, this new crop of licensed, trademarked, controlled varieties are a likeable bunch. They are attractive, while not displaying the almost violent crimson of some older industry standards. They tend to be on the sweet side of a sweet- tart balance, which is becoming the new norm. And they are crisp, in a satisfying way. Although promotional copy describes hints of exotic flavors and aromas, these apples tend not to offer the idiosyncratic delights that you might sample at a tasting of heirloom rarities. Adam Auster, the Massachusetts writer behind the blog Adam’s Apples, remarks that, “Although the quality of all these modern apples is high (sweet, hard, crisp, flavorful, and durable), they are depressingly similar. They lie inches apart on a canvas that is miles wide, as if no one could possibly want anything else.”
Here are the best-selling apples in the United States:
2. Red Delicious
4. Granny Smith
6. Golden Delicious
8. Pink Lady
Note: Only Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and McIntosh originated in North America.
This influx of heavily promoted global apples has brought up a couple of concerns. The trees typically are not available to small-scale growers, which means you won’t find these varieties when you stop by your favorite local orchard. Also, club apples are beginning to squeeze out longstanding favorites from supermarket produce departments. Just as Nabisco has developed more than fifty flavors of its Oreo cookie, we can expect big-time apple breeders to keep introducing the next great variety. As Stenmilt’s Briana Shales says, “Consumers today are into trying new things. They are looking for new flavors.”
The New England Apple Association, aware of this trend, has rebranded regionally grown Jonagold apples as JuicyGolds, attempting to encourage supermarkets to stock a variety widely considered to be underrated. According to the association’s executive director, Bar Lois Weeks, “The capital ‘G’ in Gold is a double entendre, referring to both the apple’s color and something of great value.” Only member growers of the NEAA can take part in the program.
Few American apples have risen so high in popularity and then sunk so low. Baldwin was our first true commercial variety. For a short period in the early 1900s it was the number one apple in the United States. But Baldwin ran into a shiny competitor from Canada — McIntosh — and was bumped from the marketplace.
When New England growers got together in the 1920s to concentrate their time and marketing dollars on just seven varieties, Baldwin made the cut, but only because it was seen as a sentimental favorite of the public. The variety’s fortunes slipped further in the 1930s, when a severe winter knocked out nearly half the Baldwin trees in the Northeast.
Baldwin began as a seedling in the northeastern Massachusetts town of Wilmington, sometime before 1750. The apple was named for a Colonel Baldwin, who grafted trees from the original seedling. In 1895, the site of that first tree was marked with a monument topped by a stone apple.
The thick, tearing skin is on the tough side. Baldwin’s yellow flesh is crisp, coarse, and juicy, with a spicy character that recommends it as a cider apple and for pies.
Harvesttime varies between late September and November. The apples keep well.
This attractive descendent of Golden Delicious, possibly crossed with Jonathan, is not only marked with a pinkish cheek but also may add a flavor hint of wild cherry. It was discovered when a farmer in southern Illinois spotted a seedling that looked promising. Stark Brothers Nursery was interested enough to buy the patent for a reported $20,000, and the variety was made available in 1968. It remains most popular in the Midwest.
Blushing Golden delivers a bit more zip than its parent. Try it in sauce and apple butter. The apples become available around mid-October. They hold up well if kept in the fridge.
This cross between the best-selling red varieties Red Delicious and McIntosh is the work of New York’s Geneva Experiment Station. It was introduced in 1966 and has proved superior to the parent it most resembles, Mac, in redness, flavor, and post-harvest life. Not surprisingly, Empire has caught on with both growers and the apple-eating public.
But it’s still not red enough in some eyes. Super-sanguine Empires were discovered growing on a limb in an orchard in Wolcott, New York, and the added 15 percent of color earned an extra-fancy grade, as well as a new name, Royal Empire.
The creamy white flesh is crisp and juicy. Right off the tree, Empire is an excellent choice for eating out of hand if you like a loud, snapping apple that’s sweeter than tart. Empires are frequently added to cider blends and can be used for cooking.
Harvest is in September or October. In storage the apples keep their quality well. There’s an aesthetic harvest each spring, when the unusually pink blossoms appear.
When it comes to naming apples, “black” is used with as much license as “blue” in flower names. But this reddish purple variety can, in fact, approach black at the end of the season. It is thought to be a seedling of Winesap, selected in Benton County, Arkansas, around 1870.
Beneath that attractive dark, waxy skin, the golden flesh is juicy, firm, and crisp, with a notable aroma. Arkansas Black lends itself to cider and is suited for cooking.
The apples are picked in October or November and gain in flavor in storage.
It seems appropriate when an apple carries the name of a person or place responsible for its existence. This one honors Edwin B. Williams, who led the disease-resistant apple breeding program at Purdue University. It is a scab-resistant variety, released in 1988.
Williams’ gets a jump on the season, becoming available in August. Raintree Nursery, a Washington State source for many interesting varieties, names Williams’ the best of the early apples. And according to Fedco, a Maine nursery, “It’s actually crisp, which is rare for a summer apple.”