It’s not my fault that apples are ready for picking this time of year, every year. And I take no responsibility at all for my obsession with them. It wasn’t always this way. As you may recall, last October a writer named Rowan Jacobsen was making the rounds on radio promoting his book, Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics & Little-Known Wonders (Bloomsbury USA, 2014).
There once were over 1600 varieties of apples grown in this country, many of them originating in New England. Once refrigeration allowed the transporting of apples to farther away markets, many of the less hearty varieties were shunned for apples that traveled well and looked, well, pretty. (Looking at you, Red Delicious).
So there are some heirloom varieties that went extinct. But some trees may still exist and that’s where Maine’s John Bunker of Fedco Trees comes in. Mr. Bunker and others in the biz have undertaken an effort to raise awareness about these apples, even to the point where he distributes “wanted” posters of some he thinks may still grow and the towns they are likely to be found. Here is where you can find out more about Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s 2015 the annual Apple Day where John Bunker will identify apples attendees bring in. (www.mofga.org)
What’s changed in a year? For one thing, I’ve done a lot of research on New England-grown heirloom apples, even extending the research to poet Emily Dickinson and writer Louisa May Alcott. (More on that in another post). I found three varieties Louisa May’s father Bronson Alcott planted on his land in Concord, Massachusetts in 1846. How? I just read his journals, and that was a long shot. The person who put together the volume I read said that this one book was only one of twenty volumes he could have published. Alcott was a dedicated journaler. That I flipped a few pages and found the entry where he names the varieties he plants on that April day in 1946, it was more than serendipity. Great good luck there.
This is the big reason I love this: it involves a certain amount of detective work. And that’s right up my alley. It also involves going to libraries, museums and ordering ancient books via inter-library loan. I just returned a shopping bag of books to the Colby library today, all on Emily Dickinson (none revealing what types of apples her father grew, but a lot alleging why she was so weird, well, reclusive. No dissing Miss Emily. Did you know she was a great cook?)
It’s been a year, and yesterday I had more nerding-out type fun with apples. My daughter and I went to the Audubon Society’s annual apple day at the Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. While most of the attendees were kids and their parents and grandparents, we happily did the scavenger hunt, tasted freshly made applesauce, courtesy of the U. Maine Cooperative Extension Service, sipped fresh cider, made right there by a hard-cranking young woman.
My daughter is 25 and I’m not yet a grandparent. But we had a blast. The orchard on the grounds is beautiful with some fine varieties like Tolman Sweet (Dorchester, MA late 1700’s), Nod Head (Hollis NH, 1780, farm of Samuel Jewett), Northern Spy (E. Bloomfield, NY, 1800) and two trees labeled on Audubon’s map as “unknown.” Huzzah! More detective work. I brought home an apple with a bit of branch with leaves to try to identify myself. We’ll see how it goes.
Today, I passed on going to a farm and buying apples. I went down to an abandoned orchard nearby and picked a few bags of apples of a type I’ll also have to research to identify. The trees are old, very old. They are not tended or sprayed. I shared them with the deer and other wildlife, taking only enough to make some applesauce and perhaps a fried apple dessert from a recipe from Ted and Matt Lee. Ben and Jerry’s vanilla waits in the freezer. The bourbon has some raisins soaking in it. I think it’s going to be a good evening.