Apples mean so much to people that I cannot explain the way a lot of us turned away from their satisfactions for half a century. If we are fortunate, and we do all we can to support the people who did not yield to the seductions of beautiful-looking, pitiful-tasting supermarket red and yellow apples during those long tasteless years, we may be able to relaunch a nation of apples that have a range of flavors and uses we came close to forgetting.
We are not out of the woods -- make that the orchard -- yet. In Handpicked, a story by Christine Muhlke in Sunday's New York Times, I learned that even in California, even in wine country, even where food receives much attention, even when growers have experience, impeccable credentials, and connections to the top tier of California food, a family that grows 80 varieties of fine apples struggles to make a living.
We in the USA have loved apples for centuries for more than their crisp, fresh taste in summer and fall. Sweet cider, hard cider, cider vinegar, apple brandy, and apple sweets sustained many of our ancestors. In the first section of The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan offers a layperson's primer on apple propagation (strange, and not by seeds). Then Pollan has fun remaking our understanding of Johnny Appleseed, a real person (John Chapman) who played a real role in spreading apples through the USA, more to make money by meeting the demand for hard cider than to meet a demand for healthy, tasty fruits. Even so, Chapman's success in spreading apples across large distances helped make apple trees a likely presence on virtually every farm, and on many lots in towns as well.
One of the most intriguing apple love stories I have read recently stars Creighton Lee and Edith Calhoun. I have not found much biographical information about these two. I can make a reasonable guess about their home state: North Carolina. The Calhouns have made it their lifework to locate, identify, and write in detail about the fine old beloved apple varieties that grew in the South. In addition, they are working to re-establish as many varieties as they can in their own orchard.
Their book, Old Southern Apples, published in 1995, describes around 1600 varieties of apples that flourished in the southern United States, sustaining and delighting families for hundreds of years. In 1995, nurseries offered at least 300 of these apple varieties, and Creighton Lee Calhoun expected the number could grow, according to this IndyWeek story. The number may now be much higher. In 2009, Cyndi's Catalog of Garden Catalogs lists Calhoun's Nursery (no website) as offering 450 varieties of heirloom southern apples.
I remember apple trees in the side yard of the farm house where I grew up, and I remember a certain look and feeling the old people had when they talked about the Horse Apple (p. 90, Plate 18) and Early Transparent (p. 158). That's what the Calhouns experienced, a thousand times over, as they talked with southerners about apples.
Sadly, you will have a hard time reading their work. The Calhouns' book is out of print, available online for $900 (hardcover) or, the bargain price, $275 for a used softcover. It's going to be a moral victory for me to return Eastern Kentucky University's used softcover copy, delivered in to my eager hands through the marvelous Inter-Library Loan program at Lexington Public Library. You may be able to get this same copy to travel to a library near you using the same library-to-library request program, provided I return this book instead of selling it online.
Old Southern Apples needs reprinting. A lot more people deserve to enjoy the Calhouns' combination of passion for apples, detailed information about their use, and a cool, systematic, thorough description of a mind-boggling array of apple types. In addition, the beautiful photos of 48 watercolors of old apples are remarkable. These watercolors, which the Calhouns discovered during their research, are a story in themselves.
What excites me is the possibility that the Calhouns, along with others, have helped turn around a nearly fatal decline, and that our children and grandchildren may take for granted the presence of many fine apple trees all around their homes and in their cities. Six apple trees per person -- that was a ratio sought in the past. We have some planting to do.