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4 april 2012

The apple is the most basic American fruit – source, naturally, of our emblematic pies. It is so American that you'd think it has to be some product of the Western, capitalist imagination; but come to find (in Erika Janik's excellent Apple: A Global History) that the apple is native to central Asia, where there still grow wild forests made up almost entirely of apple trees. Which is a mind-blowing notion in itself, more Willie Wonka than anything else. The apple really is global, too: because of its extraordinary genetic diversity, it has followed humans to every temperate zone on the planet. Local conditions have produced a bewildering variety of apples. They are mostly sour and good "only" for cider, but even at that there are thousands of practical cultivars preserved in orchards around the world.

For all that biological wonder, there are only about 20 kinds of apple, Janik notes, widely available in American supermarkets: and on a given week, you might see only about eight or ten of them. I went to an Arlington, Texas supermarket recently to buy apples for one of the recipes in Janik's book, and couldn't find the Jonathans she recommended. Red Delicious, of course; and Granny Smith; Gala and Fuji were represented; and I ended up getting Jazz apples, not really sure what they might be like, but on the hunch that they would hold their shape when sliced, unpeeled, and simmered in a stew. I was right. The Jazz apples seemed to have not much of a taste, but (a) my sense of taste is minimal and (b) on top of that, I don't think any supermarket apple has had much taste for decades.

The apple is the basic fruit of the world (as well as being the one that brought death into the world, and all our woe). They are too sweet and insubstantial to be a staple food – you can't bray apples in a mortar and make bread from them – but they have often provided the staple drink of regions without clean water. Apple cider is a beverage with a peculiar discontinuous history. For most of recorded history, apple cider was a lightly alcoholic (and therefore sterile) all-occasion softish drink. But like most living Americans, my default notion of cider is that of a sweet cloudy apple juice, making seasonal appearances to be mulled with cinnamon sticks and cradled in cold hands. When I first started travelling to the UK, I ordered cider in pubs out of curiosity and found it fairly revolting; cider is becoming more and more a staple of bar taps in the US, and I avoid it just as much as I ever did. But today's draft cider is probably a good bit stronger, more "adult," than pre-Prohibition "hard cider." The 18th Amendment killed cider production in America, and the 21st failed to revive it. The breweries and distilleries that manned the gap in newly wet America elbowed the roadside cider stand out of business – at least, out of alcoholic business.

Today's apples, as Janik notes, are uniform, grafted things; but there is hope for tomorrow's apples in every appleseed. Apples do not have to be husbanded as heirloom varieties; there's an heirloom store inside every apple. But they're also not very predictable. They're a fruit that has evolved well with us (one of the themes in Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire). They look to continue evolving successfully.

Meanwhile, there is good eating in Janik's recipe section, especially a hearty cabbage/sausage/potato stew (the one I bought those Jazz apples for). Keep the doctor away!

Janik, Erika. Apple: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.