Our Disappearing Apples

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Eastman's Antique Apples


It has been a long time since our European forebears brought forth on this continent the apple, the fruit we have come to regard as quintessentially American. In fact, apples first got here from their native Kazakhstan via Western Europe in the 17th century. As the first settlers, and those who followed them, forged an American identity, so did European apples become American.

Apples are open pollinators, meaning that through cross-pollination apple seeds grow into apple trees that bear fruit that may or may not resemble, in appearance or taste, the apples from which the seeds came. Consistent characteristics are achieved by grafting cuttings (scion wood) from trees that produce desirable apples onto very young trees (whips) that will grow to produce apples identical to those from by the predecessor trees. Every McIntosh apple picked in the world today, for example, is descended from the singular tree that lucky American expat John McIntosh discovered on his Ontario, Canada farm in 1811.

A single variety, the attractive but arguably bland and one-dimensional Red Delicious, accounts for more than 40 percent of the apples grown in the United States.

Most apple seeds (or pips) will produce apples that are not much good. Fortunately, once in awhile, a chance apple seed produces a tree that bears "keepers," like the "Mac." In our American colonial and federal past, when we were all much more self-sufficient, producing much or all of our own food or not far from its source, a farmer's fortune could be made by discovering (and selling grafts of) an apple that excelled at one or more uses, like eating out of hand; baking, cooking, or preserving; or, most profitably, making (hard) cider. After 300 years of preserving the best varieties, we enjoyed more than 15,000 apple kinds, many of which were uniquely American and tied closely to place—for instance, by being the local apple of choice for folks' favorite apple pie.

During the latter part of the 20th century, as the physical and experiential distances between Americans and their food became greater and greater, the few varieties prized by large distributors and retailers—for transportability, uniformity, appearance, and shelf life, not necessarily for taste and a specific use—became the apples available to most Americans. Today, four out of five uniquely North American apple varieties are close to disappearing.

A single variety, the attractive but arguably bland and one-dimensional Red Delicious, accounts for more than 40 percent of the apples grown in the United States, leaving heirloom varieties, like New York City's own Newtown Pippin, first picked in the early 18th century on the Queens County farm of Gershon Moore, less and less likely to be crunched by future generations. Dwindling bio-diversity, and the consequential risk of degraded resistance to pests and diseases, threatens many of the fruits and vegetables we love to eat. What can be sadder than an apple pie made with the wrong, mushy apple?

Apples, doubtless, are the quintessential American fruit and the "poster fruit" in the movement to preserve disappearing varieties of fruits and vegetables. For those of us who insist on having our history and eating it too, Slow Food USA has published a report, "Noble Fruits — A Guide to Conserving Heirloom Apples" (PDF), sort of an heirloom apple survival manual. In it are a directory of exceedingly rare varieties, with orchards and nurseries noted, and tips on how to help preserve our bio-diverse apple heritage.

From the Newtown Pippin, about which Thomas Jefferson wrote from France to James Madison, "They have no apples here to compare with our Newtown Pippin," to the Jonathan, a descendant of New York's Esopus Spitzenburg, first picked in one of Johnny Appleseed's orchards, American heirloom apples are part of our history. And from the "U-pick" Riamede Farm, in Chester, New Jersey, which grows antiques including the Paragon, Ruby, Turkey, and the exceedingly rare King David, to Cummins Nursery, in Ithaca, New York, offering New York's own rarities, the Esopus Spitzenburg and the Newtown Pippin, it is clear that an apple renaissance is upon us.


Download the "Noble Fruits" report here.

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Ed Yowell is a member of the Slow Food NYC Board of Directors and the Slow Food Regional Governor for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He also serves on the advisory committee of the New York City Greenmarket and is co-chair of the Food Systems Network NYC.

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