Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Americanization of the Apple




It's strange how our society loves a great diversity in flowers but tends to like generic fruits and vegetables.  In the first chapter of Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan charts the incredible adventure of the apple from the mountains of Kazakhstan to the rolling hills of Indiana and Ohio.  The apple is so incredibly diverse that no seed will yield exactly the same fruit, which is why Chinese figured out long ago that to get their desired fruit they had to take cuttings from their favorite trees.  A practice developed in Europe by the Romans.

The apple found its way to America in the 17th century and quickly became a priced fruit, not so much for its succulent taste as for hard cider.  This was the reason Pollan suggests John Chapman, A.K.A. Johnny Appleseed, brought the apple to the Northwest Territory in the early 19th century.  The man has since become mythologized to the point most persons see him chomping on red delicious apples while spreading the word of God.  At the time, however, apples tended to be small and tart and not that good for eating.  The apple orchard became a way of establishing a homestead and the apples could be made into wine or distilled spirits without much effort, giving persons a cheap drink on the new frontier.

The legend of Johnny Appleseed is that of a man who didn't bring cuttings, but bags of seeds, which would have resulted in a wild diversity of apple trees.  He apparently left it up to the new homesteaders to cultivate their apples to their tastes.  In time, a few select breeds were culled from the vast lot and became the industry standard by the early 20th century.   This once great diversity was winnowed down to a relative handful of varieties, which remain with us today -- the Red and Golden Delicious, the Jonathon, the McIntosh, the Granny Smith, along with a few other local hybrids.

Pollan doesn't exactly stick to the thesis he set in his introduction, in which he raised the question of whether man controls plants or do plants control man?   Chapman seemed more a shrewd businessman than an guileless agent in spreading the apple far afield.  He became relatively wealthy in his later years with considerable land holdings stretched across the Northwest Territory.

Chapman did pride himself as a Christian and had numerous stories to tell.  His love for animals would have made him akin to St. Francis of Assisi, if one was looking for religious parallels.  However, Pollan prefers to see him as a Pantheist, to the point of comparing him to Dionysus living on the edge of civilization.  This wild-haired man embodies his idea of the pagan god introducing Americans to a "sweetness" previously reserved for the rich.

Ultimately it is the apple that Pollan is most interested in, finishing the chapter with a trip at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Ithaca, where a bold attempt is being made to cultivate over 2500 varieties of apples, including original cuttings from Kazakhstan.  With so few varieties being cultivated today, the apple is in danger of inbreeding.  It is hoped that cuttings from older varieties can be grafted to the more common apple trees to get back some of their natural immunities, so that farmers won't be so heavily reliant on pesticides.  If nothing else, we can always go back to spreading seeds as Johnny Appleseed did.





2 comments:

  1. Always been fascinated by the story of Johnny Appleseed. The one thing I miss the most when moving from NYS to Minnesota is not having NY Golden Delicious apples. While I ate a wide variety of apples, these gems were my favorites by far.

    We have wine sap here but it is nowhere as good.

    But we do have Bragg's apple-cider-vinegar which is good for your salads and good for your overall health. Just bought another bottle today. Very good for anyone.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think you would enjoy the book, Trip. Pollan also gives wonderful short histories of the tulip and cannabis.

    ReplyDelete