Apple (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
APPLE. Picking apples on a clear, crisp, sunny autumn day provides a cornucopia of pleasures. The enjoyment of being outdoors and savoring another harvest has been part of the human experience for centuries. Biting into a crunchy, sweetly flavored apple or quaffing a big glass of fresh cider reminds one why apples are a part of fairy tales and folk history. Remember Snow White and Johnny Appleseed? Apples have sustained humans with beveragesard and sweet cidernnumerable culinary dishes, winter provisions, and even foodstuffs for hogs and cattle, and they are still an integral part of American culture and commerce. Apple pie is the quintessential American dessert, and bins of fresh apples are present year-round in every supermarket. An apple variety exists for every taste bud, and eating apples has a lot of health benefits, too. They are a good source of antioxidants and fiber, and an individual apple contains about 80 calories, 5 grams of fiber, 6 milligrams of vitamin C, and 170 milligrams of potassium.
Origin of Apples
Botanists theorize that apples originated somewhere in central and southern China. This area is home to around twenty Malus species, whose seeds were gradually spread by birds throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Ornamental crab apples are also descendants of these smaller, bitter-fruited species. It was thought that the edible apple (Malus domestica) evolved as a complex hybrid from a number of these wild apple species. However, Barrie Juniper, emeritus fellow in the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University, has suggested that a small population of a single Malus species from the wild forests of the Tian Shan (the Heavenly Mountains) along the border of western China and Kazakhstan is the progenitor of all modern apple cultivars. These Tian Shan forests became isolated by biological and climatic changes about 4.5 million years ago and evolved in isolation. Juniper theorizes that as bears and wild pigs, horses, and donkeys gradually began to occupy the area and to eat the largest and sweetest fruits, they aided in the process of natural selection for larger, sweeter fruit. Because apples do not breed "true to type" from seed, these wild plantings from dispersed seeds gradually contributed to a diversity of apple varieties from this one species. Later, around ten thousand years ago, humans began to travel through the area and also began to eat these fruits and to carry them westward. Juniper and other researchers are studying the remnants of these forests of wild fruit trees and are collecting samples for DNA analysis. These wild fruit trees are a fruit breeder's paradise for genetic material.
By 2500 B.C.E. apples were cultivated throughout northern Mesopotamia and Persia. The walled gardens of Persia included fruit trees for their ornamental beauty as well as for their culinary delights. The ancient Greeks and Romans also cultivated apple orchards, and their wealthy citizens enjoyed apples as part of the dessert course at banquets. The Greeks, well advanced in horticultural knowledge, understood grafting and propagated specific varieties for their orchards. The Greek writer Theophrastos knew that apples would not grow true to type from seeds, writing, "Seedlings of . . . apples produce an inferior kind which is acid instead of sweet . . . and this is why men graft." In the first century C.E. the Roman writer Pliny described over twenty named varieties in his Natural History. Apple orchards were established throughout continental Europe and in Britain as the Romans extended their empire, culture, and crops. An indicator of the importance of the apple in these ancient cultures is its prevalence in Greek and Roman mythology. The Roman goddess Pomona tended her orchards and bestowed gifts of fruit on her favorites as rewards for favorable acts.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, many of the favorite dessert apple varieties of the day disappeared. Charlemagne's rise to power in 771 brought a measure of peace and prosperity and an increased interest in horticultural pursuits. His Capitulare de Villis (Rules of Land Use) decreed that every city should include apples, cherries, plums, peaches, and pears. Charlemagne also issued an edict that brewers (which included cider makers) should be encouraged to develop their trade. Apple cultivation and varietal development progressed in Europe during the Renaissance. Varieties were selected, named, and propagated, and orchard plantings increased. These improved varieties were included in beautiful displays of fresh fruit at Renaissance banquets, where fresh apples were enjoyed as part of the dessert course.
North American History
Apples have been part of American life from the first arrival of European settlers. One of the first documented orchards in the New World belonged to William Blax-stone, a well-known horticulturalist and clergyman. He planted his orchard around 1625 on the slope of what became Beacon Hill in Boston. Blaxstone, who was described as an eccentric, saddle-trained a bull and distributed apples to his friends on his rides. One of his apples, Sweet Rhode Island Greening, is probably the first named variety from the United States.
Colonial America. A one-to six-acre apple orchard was an important part of farmsteads in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century America. Apples were grown primarily for hard cider, which was the beverage of choice because water was regarded as unsafe. Everyone in the family drank cider, and each family produced twenty to fifty barrels of cider each autumn for its own consumption and to use as barter for needed goods and services. Cider was not considered prime until it had aged over a year. Applejack, made from distilled cider, was even stronger. The first cider mills were built around 1745. Prior to this cider was made by pounding apples in a trough and draining the pomace. By the late eighteenth century cider mills dotted the countryside. In New England one in ten farms had a cider mill.
Cider was also used in cooking apple butter. Sweet cider (the unfermented, freshly pressed juice) was combined with peeled and boiled apples and cooked until the mixture had been reduced to a thick paste through evaporation. It was then put up in earthen jars for later use. Some cider was allowed to become vinegar and was used for food preservation. Apples were also dried for winter preservation. Michel Crèvecoeur, author of Letters from an American Farmer (1782), described drying apple slices on wooden platforms erected on poles. The fruit was spread out on wooden boards, where it was soon covered with "all the bees and wasps and sucking insects of the neighborhood," which he felt accelerated the drying process. The dried apples were used for apple pies and dumplings throughout the year. Peaches and plums were also dried but were considered more of a delicacy and were saved for special occasions. The dried apples, also called schnitz, were stored in bags hung in the attic rafters to keep them dry and away from mice. The Pennsylvania Dutch, German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania, were prodigious apple growers and developed a brisk business in colonial America selling schnitz, apple butter, and cider. A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch apple dish, called schnitz pie, consists of dried apples first cooked in water; then sugar and spices are added to the pot, and finally the mixture is baked in a lidded pie crust. Schnitz and knepp is a dish of ham, potatoes, and dried apples cooked together; dumpling dough is added and cooked briefly right before serving.After the Revolution, grafting and nurseries became more commonplace. Still, until the mid-nineteenth
Insect pests and diseases were not quite as prevalent in colonial times as they later became. Some key fruit pests had not yet made the trip to the New World, and other native insects had not yet discovered apples. Pest-damaged fruit was also accepted as natural and unavoidable. Still-life paintings of fruit from this and earlier eras clearly show insect and disease damage on the fruit. In 1806 Bernard McMahon, in The American Gardener's Calendar, instructed readers to pick the worst of the leaves off the tree and dash the branches with water in dry weather to prevent insect damage from spreading.
Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman, was a popular folk character in early nineteenth-century America. Born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1774, Johnny Appleseed started seedling apple tree nurseries throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Traveling by canoe or on foot, he gave apple seeds from cider mills to any farmer who promised to plant them and take care of them. On his travels he also planted seedling nurseries in clearings. At his death in 1847, he had established apple trees over 100,000 square miles of territory.
Nineteenth-century apple growing. Agricultural settlement of midwestern and western states by European settlers began in the mid-1820s. Home orchards were planted in Washington State by the first European immigrants from the eastern states in the mid-1800s. Commercial orchard plantings did not take hold until the
The mid-nineteenth century saw changes in American agriculture as urban populations grew and a smaller percentage of people were involved in agriculture. Apple growing was no longer primarily the purview of the self-sufficient homestead. Alcoholic cider fell into disrepute with the spread of the temperance movement, and the cider industry declined. Larger commercial orchards were established for growing and selling fresh apples. The apple industry was affected between 1880 and 1930 by the development of the refrigerated railroad car that allowed fruit growers in the western states to ship fruit east. The development between 1910 and 1920 of refrigerated storage meant that long-keeping winter apples were not as necessary, so fewer varieties were grown by commercial orchards. At the beginning of the twentieth century seven thousand named varieties of apples existed, but five thousand of these varieties were extinct by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Prior to refrigerated storage, apple cultivars grown in small orchards varied from early-season baking apples to winter-keeper types with a thick, waxy skin that would store well in root cellars.
Pesticides were not developed or widely used until the late nineteenth century, when growers began producing fruit more for market and for fresh eating rather than for cider and for home consumption. Orchardists experienced increasing pest damage from codling moth, a larval fruit pest accidentally introduced from Europe by early settlers, and from other pests and diseases. The first arsenical insecticide, Paris green (copper acetoarsenite), was developed in the 1870s to control codling moth. Lead arsenate was developed as an insecticide in 1892. Growers also began using nicotine sulfate to fortify the lead arsenate applications. At first these broad spectrum, toxic pesticides were applied one to three times during a growing season, but the number of applications increased as codling moth became more difficult to control. By 1945 orchardists were using up to seven applications of lead arsenate each season. DDT, developed during World War II, was hailed for its effectiveness against insect pests and low toxicity to humans. Not until later did scientists discover that DDT persisted in the food chain. Still, these new pest controls were not without concerns. DDT successfully controlled codling moth but wiped out natural predators that kept other pests in check, so the number of pests that needed to be controlled greatly increased as the number of pesticides increased.
Public debate over pesticide use grew with the increasing use of pesticides. In 1937 the U.S. Congress directed the U.S. Public Health Service to investigate the possible harmful effects of spray residues on fruits and vegetables. Although the Service's report, finished in 1940, concluded that harmful effects were minimal, the dialog about pesticide use continued, reflected in various scientific studies and public debates through the decades. The 1962 publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson galvanized public opinion about the environmental consequences of pesticide use.
Apple Orchards in the Twenty-First Century
The introduction of integrated pest management in the 1970s placed more emphasis on understanding pest and disease life cycles and pest populations as the basis for pesticide applications instead of touting the benefits of applying sprays on a routine basis. Still, fruit growers must meet the demand for inexpensive, blemish-free fruit in a competitive marketplace. Pesticide use on apples remains higher than on most other crops. Researchers continue to study pest-and disease-monitoring techniques, biological controls, and new targeted pesticides to develop more ecologically based production systems and to lower the pesticide risk for agricultural workers and consumers. Consumer demand for organic fruits and vegetables produced without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers has increased. Organic apple production is growing, particularly in the Northwest, which has fewer insects and diseases than the Northeast.
In the early twenty-first century Washington State produced 50 percent of the apple crop in the United States, followed by New York, California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Although over two thousand varieties of apples are grown in the United States, commercial orchards produce about 90 percent of the crop from ten varieties of applesed Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Rome, Fuji, McIntosh, Gala, Jonathan, Idared, and Empire. Controlled atmosphere storage, where the oxygen level is decreased and additional nitrogen is introduced into refrigerated storage, means apples can be stored from one season to the next and hold their quality. Approximately 50 percent of the crop is sold for fresh eating; 20 percent is processed for vinegar, cider, juice, jelly, and apple butter; 17 percent is canned as applesauce and pie filling; and 13 percent is exported. Internationally apples are the most widely cultivated tree fruit. Annual world apple production stands at approximately fifty-seven metric tons of apples. China is now the world's largest producer of apples, followed by the United States, Turkey, Italy, Germany, France, Iran, Poland, Argentina, and India.
Commercial apple orchards require skilled management. Apples are adaptable but grow best in cool temperate climates from about 35 to 50 degrees latitude. Most apple varieties require full sun, good soil drainage, and a chilling period (1,000 to 1,600 hours of temperatures below 45°F) and 120 to 180 frost-free days to produce a crop. Fruit quality is highest when day temperatures are warm but nights are cool. Orchardists favor trees that have been propagated on size-controlling rootstocks. These root-stocks produce smaller trees that can be planted more intensively, yield more per acre, and bear fruit earlier (two to four years) than full-sized standard rootstocks. Trees are pruned annually, and pests, diseases, soil fertility, and water needs are monitored to maximize fruit quality, size, and color. Growers must also pay attention to market demands and price fluctuations to maintain viable businesses in a highly competitive international arena.
One option for smaller family farm operations is to focus on direct marketing to the consumer. Roadside marketing, farm markets, and pick-your-own operations can emphasize locally grown, unique apple varieties. Large-scale supermarkets tend to carry only a few varieties, while the several thousand apple varieties once grown in the United States are unknown to many consumers. Apple aficionados can search out regional favorites like Smokehouse, a fine, old Delaware and Pennsylvania apple from 1837; Grime Golden, the rich, distinctive apple from the mountains of West Virginia; or Blue Permain, a large, dark purplish-red fruit that will keep all winter in a root cellar. The best baking apples are found at farmer's markets. The tart Lodi ripens early in the season, Fallawater is an old favorite for both baking and eating, and the yellow-fleshed Smokehouse is juicy and firm for pies.
Preserving the rich heritage and genetic diversity of these varieties is a concern of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization devoted to saving heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits. The organization maintains a historic orchard of seven hundred apple varieties at its Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, and aims to obtain cuttings of all existing nineteenth-century apples. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also maintains an apple germ plasm collection of more than three thousand varieties in orchard plantings or in tissue culture storage. These collections offer genetic characteristics, such as insect and disease resistance, flavor, fruit size, and cold hardiness, that are important in breeding new apple cultivars.
The general perception among gardeners is that apple growing is too complicated and is best left to experts. Backyard apple-growing enthusiasts know that, while apple growing does take an investment of time and knowledge, it really is not difficult. Some homework will determine the varieties and size-controlling rootstocks that thrive in an area. Local agricultural extension agents are good resources for information on which pests and diseases might present problems. The North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) is a network of fruit-growing enthusiasts who publish a quarterly journal of helpful varietal and growing information. Disease-resistant varieties, such as Liberty, Redfree, Gold Rush, and William's Pride, are an absolute boon for backyard orchardists. Gardeners can combine the disease-resistant varieties with insect-trapping techniques, like the apple maggot trap, which is a red apple-sized sphere coated with sticky tanglefoot to attract apple maggots, and kaolin clay, a fine clay particle spray material, to produce a good-quality apple without inundating a backyard with pesticide materials. Harvesting a basket of crisp, delicious apples from a backyard orchard should be on every gardener's wish list.
See also Fruit: Temperate Fruit; Pie; United States: Pennsylvania Dutch Food.
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Sarah Wolfgang Heffner