October 6, 2005

An Apple a Day …

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In this country, we think we are “as American as apple pie.” After all, we’ve been eating apples since before teething: our mothers probably fed us applesauce. In pre-school, we learned our ABCs and presented our teachers with this fruit at the beginning of the school year. Americans might not be versed in the fine delicacies of smoked herring or fois gras, but at a consumption rate of 42.2 pounds per capita each year, we’re verifiable apple connoisseurs.

But like most foods, the apple has a history unmentioned in popular culture. How many of you were taught in elementary school that apples were not widespread until John Chapman scattered apple seeds across the country? True, Chapman did plant apple orchards, but he would have been wandering aimlessly around the Midwest with a pot over his head if the first apple tree wasn’t brought to Massachusetts by John Endicott in the early 1600s. And apples were not “invented” in America. Horticulturalists at our university identified the lower slopes of the Tian Shan (China) as a possible location of the “original wild apple forest.”

America may be the only modern country to weave the apple into its national identity, but cultures around the world have laid claim to the apple for centuries. The Greeks in the seventh century B.C. integrated the apple into marriage rites: apples symbolized fruitful unions. The Celts bobbed for apples as a New Year tradition long before Americans took up the practice during Halloween. The Scots threw apple peels over their shoulders to spell their lovers’ initials. Even the apple pie, seemingly an American creation, has cropped up in other cultures. Pies were a staple in 14th century England: savory pies were eaten for dinner and fruit pies were consumed for dessert. In fact, pie consumption was so pleasurable that Oliver Cromwell banned fruit pies in the early 1600s as part of his “Godly Reformation.”

However, these facts do not diminish the importance of the apple in our society. Americans have become obsessed with apple breeding and cultivation. One hundred varieties are grown and cultivated in the United States; Washington, New York, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania and Virginia are the top producing states. Most of you probably have a favorite type of apple, depending on the texture and level of sweetness. The five most popular apples in the United States are Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith. The Red Delicious apple was bred in America to appeal to both the senses and the taste buds. The consistently perfect red color and curvaceous shape made this apple popular among consumers – each looks like a perfect replica of computer clip art. Unfortunately, since the early 1990s, Red Delicious has become over-engineered: it looks a whole lot better than it tastes. Another truly American apple derivation lies not in eating, but in drinking: the martini was supposedly invented in San Francisco in the 1860s and the apple martini followed thereafter.

Who in this country doesn’t immediately associate fall with apple season? New York is a particularly famous source of sweet, crunchy apples. Last week, Wegman’s featured free samples of Cortland apples. The crisp texture and flat shape of this fruit make it a must-have seasonal treat. Autumn religious holidays provide a constant reminder of apples. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins this Monday night – apple with honey is a traditional celebratory dish (to symbolize a sweet new year).

Even the town of Ithaca has caught fall apple fever. This weekend, the annual Apple Festival will be held in the Commons, complete with live music, rides, local entertainment and food vendors. Of course, no apple festival would be complete without the pinnacle of gluttony: an apple pie eating contest. Though most of us will miss the festival due to fall break, let the rest of America eat their apples because we can now say that we know them.

Archived article by Anna Fishman
Sun Contributor