By Lynn Franklin
Copyright 2018, Originally published in The Diamond Digest
From the outside, the house appeared no different from others on the block. Like its neighbors, the small colonial was painted white, its shutters and front door a cheery green. The smell that wafted out when the door opened, however, told me I’d arrived at a very special place.
Apples. The house oozed the sweet odor of apples.
For the last month or so, apples had dominated my professional life. I’d met and interviewed a family whose members had become so enamored by the history and lore of apples that they planted 525 different varieties of apples.
That’s right. Five hundred and twenty-five. And each featured a unique color, shape and flavor. Some were soft and sweet. Others crisp and tart. Some tasted of pineapples, strawberries, cherries or wine. There were red apples, yellow apples, green apples and striped apples, round apples and long apples and apples that resembled a Sheep’s nose.
I tasted every one of those 525 varieties and was both astounded and humbled by the human dedication to their favorites and the bounty the trees produced. At one point in history, I learned, the number of different apple varieties available to us numbered in the thousands.
So why can we only find less than a dozen different varieties in our neighborhood grocery stores and farmer’s markets? That was one of the questions I’d been asking. The answer is not nearly as interesting as the people who’d been drawn into the apple mystique.
People like the short, white-haired gentleman who answered the door to the house that smelled like apples. It’s been 20-some years since I met this man and I no longer remember his name. Let’s just call him George.
What I do remember is the interior of George’s house. Apples lined the windowsills in the living room, dining room and kitchen. They flowed across the coffee table, the buffet, the kitchen counter. They settled in packing boxes on the tile floor and carpet.
George led me through this labyrinth of apples to an empty chair in the kitchen.
Smiling sheepishly, he told me that the apples came from places across the U.S. They began arriving in early August. By October, the month when most apples ripen, the trickle of packages crescendoed into a tidal wave.
The people who sent the apples wanted George to identify the apple variety they’d found growing in their backyards, their grandparents’ yard, their neighborhood playground.
Such a skill might seem little more than a parlor game. For the people who seek George’s help, however, his answer satisfied an emotional need they could neither define nor resist.
On this October day, I was here to watch George perform his magic.
He reached for two red apples.
“Apples, like people, possess a set of distinct traits,” he said. “But unlike people, we can judge a lot based on external factors like shape and color.”
He held up the apples. “These two varieties are commonly available today. Do you know what they are?”
I identified the apple in his left hand as a Red Delicious, the one in his right as a McIntosh.
He smiled. “That’s correct. How did you know?”
Most apples, like the McIntosh, are round. McIntosh (Macs to apple connoisseurs) are smaller than the Red Delicious. The bottom nodes aren’t as pronounced and its red skin is marred with blotches of green. It was the oily sheen of the apple’s skin that told me this apple’s identity. I knew if I touched the Mac, the skin would feel slick.
George beamed his approval. A rush of pride washed over me.
George reached for a knife. Most of us cut apples vertically, from stem to blossom end. George cut these apples horizontally. He laid them on the table, skin side down. Seeing what was now displayed, I felt my mouth falling open: At the center of each apple was a star.
The star held pockets containing the seeds.
“The seed chambers are called carpels,” George said. “Notice how the Red Delicious star is longer and narrower than the Mac? The length, width and overall shape of the carpels is another way I identify apples.”
He pointed at the fleshy pulp. “Can you see the difference between the Mac and the Delicious?”
Sure enough, the Mac’s pulp was whiter and finer grained than the Delicious.
George set the two red apples aside and produced three yellow apples.
When trying to identify apples, words like “yellow” aren’t descriptive enough. George pointed out that one of the apples had some green undertones. The second had pink undertones while the third appeared more buttery.
At this point, I could tell that the three apples also differed in their shapes, the length and thickness of their stems, the depth of bottom lodes.
“We think these three apples are related.” George picked up the yellow apple with the green undertones.
“This variety, called Grimes Golden, was discovered in the 19th Century,” he said. “We’re pretty sure that the Golden Delicious—” He nodded at the yellow apple with the pink undertones— “is a seedling of Grimes Golden.”
“No relation to the Red Delicious?” I asked.
George grinned. “No relation at all. Stark Brothers, the nursery that introduced the Golden Delicious to orchardists, intentionally named their new yellow variety to reflect their Red Delicious. In those days, the Red Delicious was so popular that they figured by connecting the two, they’d increase sales of the yellow apple.”
He placed the Grimes Golden and its offspring Golden Delicious side by side.
“As you can see,” he continued, “their appearance is similar enough that I wouldn’t bet money on identifying them by appearance alone. This is one of those cases in which taste is important.”
He sliced the two apples, then cut a piece off of the Golden Delicious and handed it to me.
I bit into it and savored the honeyed sweetness.
Then he handed me a slice of Grimes Golden.
Like its descendent, Grimes Golden was crisp and sweet. But unlike the Yellow Delicious, this apple possessed a rich spiciness that made its offspring seem bland. I could instantly see how flavor might become the deciding factor in identifying apple varieties.
The third yellow apple, the one with the butter-colored skin, was a descendent of Yellow Delicious called Ginger Gold. Ginger Gold ripened in August or September and, like other early-ripening apples, lacked the depth of flavor of October-ripening varieties. Even so, it provided a pleasing sweet crunch while apple connoisseurs waited for other varieties to ripen.
George reached for a final apple. More round than oblong, its skin was yellowish with orangey red stripes.
“This is a Cox’s Orange Pippin,” he said, cutting it open to reveal pale yellow pulp. “It was introduced in England in 1825.”
He handed me a slice. I bit in, surprised to not hear the characteristic snap of the other apples we’d tasted. The pulp was soft instead of crunchy.
But the flavor! My mouth exploded with a complex mix of apple, pear, melon, orange and even a touch of mango. I moaned in pleasure.
George grinned. “Yep, that’s how most people react the first time they taste this. That’s why it’s the most popular apple in England. Too bad it’s never caught on here in the U.S.”
Setting his sample apples aside, George reached for a package that had arrived from Virginia and removed several green apples. Unlike the more well-known Granny Smith apples, these were smaller and their skin was marred by brownish, scratchy-looking marks called “russeting.”
I watched George study the apple’s rounded shape, then turn it over to example its not-very-deep lobes. He sliced it horizontally to reveal white skin with a yellowish tint. The star-shaped carpels appeared more Mac-like than Red Delicious.
George cut off a piece, bit into it and smiled.
“Newtown Pippin,” he said. “One of the oldest American apples. It was a favorite of Ben Franklin and George Washington.”
Knowing full well that the stories of six-year-old George Washington and his hatchet weren’t true, I still couldn’t help feeling grateful that the little scamp used his blade on a cherry tree and spared the apple.
The modern-day George wrote something on an index card and placed the card and the Newtown Pippins back into the mailing box. He reached for a new box.
Over the next hour, George identified a small apple with red stripes as the “original Red Delicious,” a large, round apple as “Baldwin,” a yellow apple with russeting as “Yellow Russet.” Those were followed by Stayman Winesap, a Red Delicious seedling, Gravenstein, Arkansas Black, another Red Delicious seedling, Lady Apple and Esopus Spitzenburg, Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple.
As George stood to retrieve apples from the windowsill, I realized it was time for me to go. Before I left, however, George asked the telling question: Did I have a special apple tree from my childhood?
I paused, picturing the gnarly tree that grew in my family’s back yard. Its wide-spreading branches provided perfect hand and foot holds for a climbing tomboy. Its sturdy trunk offered the perfect spot to lean back and read or to stare at the clouds, imagining what lay beyond. The flavor of its red-striped apples lived on in my mind.
It wasn’t until I’d begun interviewing people about apples that I’d asked my mother what variety had graced our backyard. She’d seemed puzzled, guessed Red Delicious.
But the apple of my childhood had been tarter than even the early Red Delicious apples, crisp, clean and with an underlying depth not found in the Delicious. The flavor most resembled an 18th Century variety called Gravenstein.
The first time I’d bit into a Gravenstein, I’d been transported back to those childhood days when the world seemed ripe with possibilities. Gravensteins, however, grew best in California and probably wouldn’t survive the severe Pittsburgh winters.
“I can tell by your expression that there was a special apple tree,” George said.
Warmth spread through my body and I couldn’t suppress a grin as I suddenly understood the motives of hundreds of people who’d shipped boxes of apples across the country in the hopes that one white-haired gentleman could tell them the name of the variety.
If I could collect apples from my childhood tree, would I send them to George to ID?