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Books Offer Taste Of a Juicy History

Saturday, September 20, 2014
Apples of Uncommon Character, 
by Rowan Jacobsen, 
Bloomsbury, 311 pages, $35

Apples of New England: A User’s Guide, 
by Russell Steven Powell, 
Countryman Press, 214 pages, $19.95

Some years ago, I drove up to the Northeast Kingdom to interview Howard Frank Mosher about a new book of his and wound up captivated by an old one.

On the big table on which Mosher spread out his papers was a copy of The Apples of New York. The two substantial volumes, bound in green leather, were a gift from the writer’s son, and Mosher opened one to reveal staid, almost clinical descriptions of the apples, and beautiful, equally austere color plates. Published in 1905 by the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, the books remain the definitive guide to the world’s most widespread, diverse and iconic comestible.

The Apples of New York might be the culmination of the apple’s greatest era, which coincided with the ages of exploration and colonialism and ended with America’s Industrial Revolution and the advent of industrial agriculture. As such, it is the yardstick against which all other books about apples are measured, and since the apple hasn’t returned to the heights it attained in the 1800s, we aren’t likely to see such a book again.

But apple trees are very hardy, and as more people have turned to propagating long lost varieties, interest in the apple’s historical arc has begun to whet the appetite of writers who see a story worthy of at least one slender book, if not two hefty ones.

Two new books about apples have emerged from Vermont this month and though both dwell in the long shadow of The Apples of New York, each is an important and informative contribution to the effort to draw attention to forgotten heirloom apples and put them in the public’s hands and mouths.

That work has been underway for decades, and old New England orchards have been at the heart of it. Orchardists have rediscovered so many lost apples that Rowan Jacobsen, author of Apples of Uncommon Character, writes that “we are now in what I can confidently declare to be the Second Age of the Apple. We have more varieties of extraordinary apples within reach … than any people who have come before us.”

Not only are old varieties being brought back, but new varieties, such as the Honeycrisp, are being developed and marketed, and hard cider is making a return, as well.

It’s hard to imagine how diverse the apple once was. Jacobsen writes that American nursery catalogs once offered 16,000 named apple varieties, and his book is full of stories about how some of those varieties grew up.

Apples grow in such a profusion of varieties thanks to the fruit’s vast genome and because, Jacobsen writes, “In every apple seed the genetic deck is reshuffled, new combinations of genes interact in mysterious ways, and many traits that were invisible in the parent may suddenly turn up in the child, or vice versa.”

Plant the seed of that McIntosh you ate at lunch and the resulting apples are likely to be quite different. Apples are propagated through cutting branches and grafting them onto other apple trees.

The bulk of Apples of Uncommon Character is devoted to descriptions of the apples themselves, 123 of them, divided into categories for summer apples, dessert apples and cooking, keeping and cider apples, as well as a group of “oddities.” But Jacobsen writes about supermarket varieties like the Fuji and the Empire, as well as the old names: Blue Pearmain, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Blenheim Orange, Red Astrachan, Wolf River, Knobbed Russet, Sheepnose. Sheepnose!

He even devotes a couple of pages to the Red Delicious, which he labels an oddball. “What defines it is appearance: a freakish, deep-burgundy molar. It is more icon than fruit,” he writes, before going on to describe its more flavorful origins “as a sprout beneath a Yellow Bellflower on the Iowa farm of a Quaker named Jesse Hiatt.”

While Jacobsen’s book isn’t encyclopedic, and isn’t meant to be, it is graced with some fluid writing. Jacobsen, who grew up in Vermont and lives in Calais, near Montpelier, is a much lauded writer about food and has turned out five previous books, including A Geography of Oysters and American Terroir.

The book is so well designed and so beautifully photographed (by Clare Barboza) that I was concerned it would be little more than an attractive coffee-table volume. But Jacobsen not only can write, he has more than done his homework. The book proceeds out of a genuine love of food and of discovery, and nearly every page contains a gem or two in the form of an improbable fact, an immaculate sentence or a choice citation from a wide range of sources, including The Apples of New York.

If Jacobsen’s book is a witty, pleasant seminar on the apple, then Apples of New England, published by Countryman Press in Woodstock, is more a broad survey course. Russell Steven Powell, former executive director of the New England Apple Association, describes more than 200 apple varieties found in New England, and sets out the history of the apple in the region in a more detailed way than Jacobsen does. Where Jacobsen describes the sweep of the apple’s history, Powell gets into the nitty gritty.

The feature of Powell’s book that I find most beguiling is a long listing of New England’s rare apples, including the Bethel and Stone apples, both of which originated in Bethel; the Sparhawk, from Walpole, N.H.; the Malinda, from Orange County; and the Hazen, “developed by J. Erwin Loard of Pompanoosuc,” which Powell describes as “a large yellow-green apple with mild, sweet flavor.”

In his book, Jacobsen describes some of the detective work done by orchardists over the past few decades, including one in Maine who put up signs looking for old apple varieties and recovered the lost flavors of the Fletcher Sweet and other apples that lived in the memories of only the eldest Yankees.

I hope these two new books lead to some apple-sleuthing among the general public. Or maybe some apple tourism, as Vermonters head to Maine in search of the Fletcher Sweet or the Black Oxford and New Hampshire-ites cross the border into central Massachusetts in search of the birthplace of the Hubbardston Nonesuch.

If that’s the case, maybe the apple will continue to rise to its previous height in the public imagination, and someone from the next generation can write a follow-up to The Apples of New York. Although that book is much prized among collectors (a decent copy can fetch over $300), it is also available for free online, through the Internet Archive’s Open Library project. It’s still be the best resource for information about American apples, if only for the first golden age.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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