Sunday, October 2, 2011

Perpetual Harvest

Sometimes something happens that makes your life feel small. You suddenly know something you didn't know before. Your eyes open to the presence of an entire universe you'd never considered. And all of a sudden, you’re just not sure.

I was cleaning out papers the other day and I came across a newspaper from Oak Glen, where I went apple picking for my birthday last year.

Oak Glen is an adorable if hoakey apple farm area on the way out to Palm Springs. You drive a short winding road off the main highway that takes you up out of the desert. All of sudden you're amidst fruit orchards, rows and rows of trees tucked into the contours of the hills. There are people in somewhat periodesque dress (bonnets and aprons, hats and suspenders), but there are also piles of apples, pears, melons. There are roadside turnoffs where you can taste freshly made cider or local apple blossom honey. And you can get your apple picker and comb the orchard aisles when the fall harvest is on.

The local paper and most of the orchards list the apples they're harvesting that year, and at what time. One of the larger farms had a market where you could try slivers of at least a dozen different varieties. (Sadly, the cider doughnuts seemed to be the bigger draw.) It was here in Oak Glen that I met members of my favorite fruit family that’d I’d never known: Red Astrakhan, Mutsu, and heirloom varieties like Winesap, too, which weren’t yet ready for picking.

How wonderful! As I wandered the orchard aisles and spied the ribbons fluttering from the branches where a scribbled name proclaimed the variety fruiting from the limbs I wondered why I’d never seen these at my local store. I mean, there were hundreds of apples here, surely enough for a few bins at a local grocer!

Leafing through last year’s harvest list in the Oak Glen paper I got to wondering what other apples I might find that I‘d never tasted. Or seen. The short list from just one of the local orchards included: Arkansas Black, Courtland, Double Red Delicious (double red? double delicious!) Starkey Delicious, Staymen Winesap and Virginia Winesap.

Growing up I picked a thousand apple stickers off my Washington apples, and knew that this is where all apples, certainly the best apples, come from.


When I googled apples I was taken by a suspicion that was quickly confirmed: there are distinct regional varieties of apples. There are common west coast and east coast apples. Northeast and southern apples. Apples I had never even heard of. Oh my god! It’s like someone gave me a nibble of forbidden fruit, and the dozen varieties I'd savored and loved for years, suddenly, were not enough. There was even more forbidden, or at least geographically inconvenient, fruit to be had. Get me outside this garden gate!

Stayman, Criterion, York Imperial. Devonshire Quarrenden, Ellison’s Orange. The Northern Spy. Northern Spy?! I must try this apple, which is described as: sprightly, acidic, moderately sweet, very crisp and juicy. (Wait, are they describing me?)

I pictured a drive down minor roads in the northeast amongst dense trees in the softer seasons between summer and fall, winter and spring. Much in the manner of wine tasting, stopping off for a nible of this variety, a taste of that hybrid. Just to see the waxy bloom and red blush of a Paula Red. Such a lyrical name, such a character.

As it turns out, there are 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the US, a mere 100 of which are grown commercially. There are 7,500 varietes grown worldwide. Imagine it: That is a different apple a day for over 20 years!

As Michael Pollan writes in Botany of Desire, "high in the hills of Kazakhstan, you can find an astounding variety of examples of what the apple could have been, from large purplish softballs to knobby green clusters." I for one am happy to have our current varieties as they are, "portable, durable conduits for sweetness." I just want more of them. 

Back at Oak Glen, the Fujis and Galas were quickly picked over, testament to the fond familiarity that our local grocers create by what they stock. And truly there was twinge of disappointment that I would miss the opportunity to pick some of my familiar favorites here in the orchard amidst the excitement of a half dozen unknown varieties.

And the apples I know, I love. Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady or Jazz or Honeycrisp, depending on the year, the crop, the culinary trend. They are the perfect fruit in my eye: they've been found in my salad and my spicy sun dahl; grilled along with Jarlsberg in my sandwich; sliced with a sprinkling of bee pollen, a dash or cinnamon or a luscious dollop of peanut butter.

Below is a list of about seventy common table apples, aka dessert and dual purpose apples, that comes up on Wikipedia. And this doesn't include cooking or cider apples!

Adams Pearmain
Arkansas Black*
Ashmead's Kernel
Aurora Golden Gala
Ben Davis
Blenheim Orange
Beauty of Bath
Belle de Boskoop
Cornish Gilliflower
Cox's Orange Pippin
Cripps Pink (Pink Lady)*
Delbarestivale® delcorf
Delbardivine® delfloga
Egremont Russet
Esopus Spitzenburg
Ginger Gold
Golden Orange
Golden Delicious* 
Granny Smith*
Grimes Golden
James Grieve
Jersey Black 
Karmijn de Sonnaville 
Knobbed Russet 
Newtown Pippin
Paula Red
Pink Pearl
Ralls Genet
Red Delicious*
Rhode Island Greening
Ribston Pippin
Roxbury Russet
Rubens (Civni)
Sekai Ichi
Sturmer Pippin
York Imperial

I starred the apples in the list I know I’ve had. Back at home, even in the blossoming foodie culture of Los Angeles, I’ll probably never see some of these in my store. We all know the monoculture monopoly of the local grocery store: an apple a day means one of a limited few varieties. Even if I never meet a Taliaferro at my neighborhood Whole Foods, I'll still pick apples, wherever they're from.

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