Apples of Uncommon Character [Reading Challenge 2019]

Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, & Little-Known Wonders

by Rowan Jacobsen
Photographs by Clare Barboza

Bloomsbury, USA, 2014

[Challenge # 18: A book where food, cooking, restaurants, chefs, etc. play a major role. ]

I was all set to read American Pie as my foodie selection for the 2019 challenge, but then I heard of this book, and I just had to read it instead.

Apples of Uncommon Character is a different kind of food book, part history, part field guide, part cookbook, and part coffee table folio, with beautiful, lucid photographs by Clare Barboza. Mainly, it’s a field guide, but not a comprehensive one. The apples within it, a mix of heirlooms, oddities, rarities, and new creations, are not meant to be all there ever were, just ones the author considers outstanding examples of taste, use, and creation. There’s a fair bit of history as well. I never knew that apples originated in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, in the Tian Shan Mountains and were distributed to the west along the Silk Road. I also learned that apple trees do not breed true to seed. Apples have a very complicated and robust genome and, depending on their parents, vary wildly in fruit size, taste, shape, color, texture, time of fruiting, and keeping qualities. Thus, cultivated apple trees are all clones of the master type, branches cut from the parent tree grafted onto donor rootstock.

The book was also a walk through the past for me, as it listed some of the favorites I grew up eating on the East Coast:  Winesap, Jonathan, Spy. My mother would take me to the local farmers market on Sunday afternoons and I was given the liberty to pick whatever apple basket caught my fancy. Many times it was the Jonathan, which I liked because of its round shape and red color… so bright the pigment sometimes bled into the snowy white flesh. I also liked McIntosh, and another type, Gravenstein I think it was, so huge it completely filled up my child’s hand like an oversized baseball. I never picked the Golden Delicious, I didn’t like it, or the Red Delicious, which receives a well-deserved drubbing in the book for its lack of taste.

Other apples I remember from upstate New York: Cortland and Empire with their ciderlike taste. As it turns out, unknown to me both Geneva and Ithaca have long been hotbeds of apple research and development.

The apples are divided by the author into summer-fruiting, dessert (eating out of hand types), baking, keeper (apples which will keep well over the winter in a farmstead’s root cellar) and cider brewing types. This was a revelation for me also, as I always thought an apple was just an apple. But the mix of starches and sugars in an apple’s flesh, as well as the thickness of its skin, is what delineates its commercial use. Some span several categories. The author gives marketing information about each apple, like where it was grown and for what market, and how popular it became.

And apple types do move in and out of popularity. In the late 2010s sweet, crunchy apples are all the rage: Honeycrisp, Gala, and Fuji. Some varieties like Red Delicious and Cameo are on their way down, and others, like Ambrosia and Jazz, on their way up. And, sadly, there are some varieties that appear only for a single season, can’t prove their marketability, and disappear. Green Dragon, where are you?

As I read on the author was revealed as something of a food snob, or just a very devoted apple foodie, to put it more kindly. Living on a farm, with friends in the apple business, he is privy to the taste of hundreds of apple varieties us mere mortals can only dream of, which makes, for those whose apples come from the supermarket, the book a vicarious read and perhaps a useless one, as I don’t think taste can be conveyed in words the way touch and sight can. “When you bite into it, there is a fleeting salvo of something rich and fruit, then the blast of sharpness arrives with a classic apple nose. At the end, your lips feel etched in acid.”  I mean, like, huh? That’s a lot of fluffy nonsense.

Still, it was a lively and enjoyable read. I will never look at apples the same way again.


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