As American as Immigrant Pie
October is the time to enjoy the wholesome fruit of the apple tree. Whether served in a pie, made into sauce or taken raw, apples are the essential American fruit. No native fruit — neither the persimmon, nor blueberry nor cranberry — is more closely associated with this country than the apple.
Like my ancestors, and perhaps yours, the forebearers of the domesticated apple were not native to this continent. Crab apple trees are native to the U.S., but the domestic apple, of which there are many varieties, is an Asian migrant.
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan describes how the apple has relied on assistance from humans to adapt itself to a wide range of climates throughout the world. The wild apple species that is the progenitor of the many varieties of domestic apples we enjoy comes from Kazakhstan. One of Pollan’s themes is that in America, the apple adapted to domestic soils and climates just as early immigrants did. Adaptation resulted in new apple varieties as distinct from their European ancestors as the American people were distinct from Europeans.
Well known American varieties include York, Stayman Winesap, Red Delicious and Grimes Golden. If you want a good baking apple for your truly American apple pie, use Arkansas Black or Idared, if you can find them.
Oddly, apples do not grow true from seed. If you plant an apple seed, it should bear fruit in six or seven years, but the apples it produces will be very different from its parent and almost certainly unfit for eating. An apple tree is capable of producing tens of thousands of seeds within a normal lifespan. If all those seeds were planted, each tree would produce fruit possessing varying qualities of sweetness, juiciness, firmness, etc. Few if any would be good for anything except making cider. Still, this abundance of genetic variety is one reason the apple adapts well to a wide range of conditions.
Only one seed in a million, give or take a few thousand, has the combination of genes to produce a tree capable of bearing fruit in the same class as a Jonogold, Stayman or Rome Beauty. When such a tree emerges from the ranks of the bitter and sour, it can only be reproduced by grafting a branch onto the trunk of another tree.
In the early 20th century, the discovery of a good-tasting apple variety was the equivalent of discovering oil. A farmer who produced such a tree could strike it rich by licensing and marketing a successful variety. Today, many old-fashioned varieties are difficult to find. They have lost out to a small number of relatively bland but pretty varieties that ship and store well, qualities that chain grocery stores prefer over taste.
It can be fun to visit orchards or roadside stands to seek out unusual varieties. Southern Maryland is not blessed with an abundance of orchards, but there are a few. Seek them out through the So. Maryland So Good program at www.somarylandsogood.com.