How About Them Apples?



Do you know how it feels when you're in love?

When no matter how big the crowd, there's no one in the room but the two of you? When it doesn't matter how attractive others might be, there's only the one you see?

That's how I feel about McIntosh apples.

Well, were you really expecting this to be about love? Wise up! Helplessly as this column mires itself in metaphor or social justice, at the end of the day it's more about produce than anything else. Anyway, I probably find apples more interesting than you do. I live deep in the country, and dislike television.

But if you're not interested in apples yourself I imagine it's only a matter of not having found the right one. That could change. Autumn is when apples come into their own, so that right now even in the supermarket you will find more kinds than you knew existed.

I discovered McIntosh apples through serendipity, having read somewhere that the Mac computer was named for them--they were some tech employee's favorite nosh, apparently. That made me curious enough to bite, and what I liked about McIntoshes is the way they bite you back, that crisp sweet-tartness. Pre-McIntosh, I was a Granny Smith girl. Grannies are those little green apples like the ones in the old song that God didn't make. I don't reckon He did. They bite back hard! I used to like their brash sourness but now that I'm older I guess I've mellowed into the McIntosh type.

But crazy as I am about apples I don't see how they ever got depicted as the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Apples just aren't the Forbidden Fruit type. They are the reliable type. Wholesome. If I had to pick a fruit most likely to be blamed for man's fall from grace I would go for something a little sluttier, possibly a nectarine.

Still, I do associate apples with knowledge, or at least with epiphanies. One example: When I was a kid I didn't like apples much. They struck me as mushy tasteless things. Then one day, desperate, I tasted one from a plastic bag my mother had just brought home from the grocery store and I was amazed: It wasn't mushy or tasteless but crisp and sweet and good.

Then, incredibly, every other apple in that bag was also good. I thought this was some monumental coincidence. It was only later I was struck with the thought: It was a different kind of apple. Probably by accident, my mother had bought something besides the ubiquitous Red Delicious. She never cared much about food and maybe she didn't even know there was more than one kind.

But there are more apples on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Mom's philosophy, 7500 varieties grown worldwide, 2500 here in the States. And there would be still more kinds if they were left to seed themselves. Watch out! Here comes another epiphany.

The truism is that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," meaning that the offspring is not that different from the parent. But like a lot of truisms it's full of crap. It wasn't true of me and Mom--I'm a foodie of the first water, God help me--and it sure as hell isn't true about apples. I read that apple seeds are so diverse, if you germinated all the seeds from one apple, each would grow into a tree that bore a different kind of apple. That's why apple growers start their new trees by grafting.

And what I learned in school about the American folk hero Johnny Appleseed was crap, too. We were taught that he wandered across the frontier planting apple seeds as he went so that we American boys and girls might always have nutritious food. That must have sent mixed messages to the churchy kids who associated apples with original sin but for the rest of us it wasn't any weirder than the Easter Bunny.

The real story of Johnny Appleseed, which I first read later in one of Michael Pollan's fascinating books, is more complicated but also more interesting. Another epiphany! At the beginning of the 1800s, you could get 100 acres in the Northwest Territory for nothing but you had to plant 50 apple trees to show your bonafides as a settler. Apples take about 10 years to bear fruit, so investing in an orchard meant you intended to stay. In this scenario, a crazy person named John Chapman carved out a financial niche for himself by staying one step further west than the current wave of settlers and planting apple trees to sell them.

This was over 200 years ago but people knew how to graft fruit trees 2000 years ago. John Chapman insisted on growing his trees from seed, though, because he adhered to a religious sect called the Swedenborgian Church that considered grafting an abomination. I guess that's why they called him Johnny Appleseed instead of Johnny Appletree.

Chapman by accounts of the time was one of your Voice in the Wilderness types, always wandering up to some cabin door barefoot, in rags and wearing his cooking pot for a hat, to ask, "Do you want to hear some news fresh from heaven?"

His religious beliefs included a horror of sex, including the marital species, and he wouldn't eat meat or ride a horse, but here's a funny thing: He couldn't have had anything against alcohol because about all the sour little apples from those seed-grown trees of his were good for was pressing and fermenting into hard cider. Which didn't matter because cider was what apples were grown for in those days anyway.

It wasn't until much later, in Prohibition, that apples got to be a big eating fruit in America. When alcohol was proclaimed illegal, apple growers had to save their industry and they started this business about Mom and apple pie, and an apple a day keeping the doctor away.

Which, in fact, I have found to be true. I rely on apples to sustain my health and diet. I always have one in my purse or backpack and it saves me from the siren call of chocolate. Do you see my problem with the forbidden fruit thing? Apples are good and all, but imagining them seducing anybody from the path of righteousness requires too much suspension of disbelief.

You know, for that matter, if I had to pick a character flaw most likely to bring about man's fall from grace it would not be curiosity but greed every time. What's wrong with seeking knowledge, for crap's sake? Greek myth also blames curiosity, and womankind, for the ills of the world, as in Pandora opening the mysterious box. Of course I'm the nosiest woman in town but what I'd like to know is, what kind of meathead wouldn't?

Maybe the message is that people are happier in ignorance, that they feel more secure perpetuating the false little truisms passed down through the generations, basing their belief system and behavior and politics on unexamined tenets they never doubt. I'm against it. What I've found in a long and sinful life is that if what you believe about practically any issue is short and simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker it's probably not true.

You've got to think for yourself. That's something you get told when you're young but what it means then is "Think the way I tell you!" I realized recently I'd only started thinking independently after everyone I trusted to do it for me had died or otherwise abandoned me. And still, time after time, I find myself astonished with reality as I find it versus the way I was told it would be.

Of course I expect it's possible to overthink things, too. My God, look what we've just done with apples!

Which we'd better get back to, late as it is. I could make some whacked-out metaphor here about good apples and bad apples, or tell you some more of my favorite eating varieties, but what I think I'll do instead is encourage you to try some you're unfamiliar with. Who knows? You may just fall in love.


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