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Back to School with Apples, Teachers, and a Modern-day Johnny Appleseed

I’ve actually only once seen a fellow student place an apple on a teacher’s desk. It was last semester in an upper level philosophy class the day before our final grades were due, and a student who hadn’t said a word the entire semester walked in and silently placed a juicy red apple on our professor’s desk en route to his own. Whether or not this maneuver was effective I never will know, but one thing I do know is that had the student chosen another fruit, such as a pear or an orange, it wouldn’t have been as funny nor nearly as meaningful. Apples are a part of North America’s culture in ways that no other fruits are. Just think of the ways apples have been incorporated into our everyday language:  “You’re the apple of my eye,” “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” and, one that I have found most handy in arguments, “You can’t compare apples and oranges.”

How did apples come to be such an important part of American culture? In his very impressive book Old Southern Apples, Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. answers this question in very well-researched detail, explaining that about one hundred years ago apples were an important staple of any Southerner’s diet. Fresh apples, pie, cider, and applesauce are just few of the countless ways Southerners incorporated the fruit into their meals. As one of the elderly Southerners Calhoun cites in his book recollects, apples were in some way, shape or form a part of every meal.

Calhoun is a pomologist (a fancy word for apple aficionado) who has spent the last thirty years growing, researching, and hunting for apples. By hunting I don’t just mean sifting through the bins at the supermarket for good apples—rather, Calhoun has devoted his time, energy, and passion to tracking down and locating as many possible of the thousands of varieties of apples known to exist in the South at one point.

“Thousands” is not an exaggeration. Calhoun hypothesizes that about eighty percent of the apples once grown in the South are extinct, yet he still managed to locate 1,800 varieties, all of which are anthologized (and some illustrated) in Old Southern Apples.

Why so many varieties? Part of the answer to this question is practical, part of it is biological. On the one hand, Calhoun points out, each apple was grown for a different reason. While most of the apples we consume today are eaten fresh, the opposite was true one hundred years ago, when apples were used more for cooking, drying, cider, and vinegar. Only a small percentage of apples were eaten fresh, and because of this Calhoun explains that simply biting into an old apple variety will not give a modern apple eater the right appreciation for the utility of the apple. “It is a waste of time to bite into an old apple variety and then disparage its taste or texture,” he says. While an old variety might not be as crisp or sweet to the taste as our modern standards would like, it might have made the best applesauce around. Calhoun encourages his readers and those who purchase apples from his own nursery to extend the use of apples beyond fresh eating. “The only way to appreciate the full palate of old apples is to make the effort to use them in the varied ways they were intended originally.” Because there were so many uses back then, there were so many varieties of apples.

But there’s also something genetically unique about the apple that makes so many varieties possible.  Flowers on apple trees contain both male and female sex parts—the pistil and stamen respectively. This means that apples can be cross-pollinated with pollen from different apples, a process performed by bees and other insects and which yields fertilized eggs that develop into apple seeds. Because these seeds contain genetic information from both the mother tree that carried the apple and the father tree from which the pollen originated, each apple seed is genetically unique. If planted, Calhoun says, each seed will produce a tree different from all other trees. Many trees are planted accidentally, and every once in a while one of these accidental trees will prove to be exceptional.

Calhoun reflects that in this respect, apples resemble humans. “Most of us are born, live, and die as ordinary people, with little to distinguish us from the millions around us. Only very occasionally does a human rise above the crowd by mental genius or exceptional ability… the analogy holds true for apples; every apple seed will grow into a unique tree, but almost always this new tree and its fruit will be quite ordinary. Only once in a long while, and unpredictably, will a seedling apple tree rise above the rest.”

This review was reposted from OKRA: The Southern Food and Beverage Museum. 


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