A thing or two about apples

As I sit in ruminative posture, I have little to do (since I don't tat) except to deplore the iniquities of politics and chew betimes on an apple. And I think, of the two, I'll try a lecture on pomology aimed at the state of Washington, whence come these beautiful but tasteless Red Delicious apples.

Now, before the folks in Washington State jump all over me and I get letters from every orchardist in Rising Gorge, let me say that I know what I'm talking about. And let me confess that we did the same thing here in Maine a hundred years ago and came to regret it. The Washington Red Delicious is a pretty poor apple, and with us it was the Ben Davis, just a little bit worse. Do I have your attention?

When I was a boy and Lewis and Clark were just recently back East, it was my chore each winter evening after supper to take a tin rising pan and go down "sulla" to fetch up apples for the family. We had orchards, so I could pick from a dozen or 15 barrels, all different apples.

In those days, Maine grew more than 300 apple varieties in commercial quantities. From water-core Transparents in August to the Fallawaters that kept all winter until the Transparents ripened again, we had most of them. The fall apples would begin to mellow after Christmas when the cold strengthened. A down-Maine farm cellar was something to remember, as I well do.

I'd fill my pan with Bellflowers, Nodheads, Baldwins, King Tomkins, Russets, Greenings, and the best of all apples, Northern Spies. The Delicious had not been invented yet, nor had the McIntosh, and we needed neither.

There was, however, the Ben Davis, but no Mainer had been known to eat one, and we never put any down for winter. The Ben Davis was a beautiful red apple we grew to ship, mostly to England. It had the properties of a 10-cent baseball and a like flavor if you bit it. But it was the best keeper known and could stand the voyage to England.

For going-on a century, the British believed there was only one apple, the Maine-grown Ben Davis. It was a folk-saying in Maine that there were no stupid worms, proof being that you never found a worm in a Ben Davis. Maine had the English apple market sewed up until the French, Ontario, and New York orchardists offered other varieties and English housewives wised up.

Suddenly, nobody in England wanted a Ben Davis.

Ontario had given us the McIntosh, and from that the nurserymen had developed the Cortland and the Macoun. But it was too late; the handsome Washington State eye-catcher was on the gain. And it is true even if I say it: Nobody should judge apples by looks.

When we farmed, I had two varieties of Gravenstein, a late-summer apple of good quality. One was the usual red and yellow, and the other was an all-red "sport." Otherwise, they were exactly the same. They budded together, bloomed together, and ripened at the same time. There was no difference. But when we picked them and put them on the roadside stand, customers always insisted on the red ones as long as they lasted. Then we began selling the others.

Quite apart from our orchard, I had a chance apple, a wild variety that started when somebody tossed a core aside. It bore a mixed-up little fruit the size of a billiard ball, green as grass. It was a delicious little bite, but lacking in looks, it would never sell. What the deer and I didn't eat in situ, I raked up and put through the cider press for vinegar. It had the best taste of any apple I grew.

Maine still has some good apple orchards, and come fall it is possible to find some old varieties, if you know where to go and what to ask for. But today's shoppers don't know enough about apples to ask for them by name. Even if they did, the counter clerks wouldn't have Russets, Pearmains, Hightops, Somersets, Pippins, and Wolf Rivers, the best for baking. Oh boy! Washington State Delicious, of course.

Nobody in Washington State will pay attention, any more than we did in Maine, but poor apples will drive good apples out of the market. When you look, you see Delicious from Washington and Granny Smiths from Australia.

Mother Eve was beguiled by the serpent, but only because she didn't know about apples. She should have cut the apple and dried it in the sun on a string. Then she and Adam could have had a dried-apple pie in February, and nobody ever called that a sin. With a dab of chicken fat in the pie crust to make it flaky, you've got something there! Who knows where we'd be today if Eve had bit a Ben Davis and hadn't liked it? I'm here to tell you I wouldn't swap Paradise for a Washington Red Delicious!

Now, before you rant and shout at me, do this, I beg of you. Find an old-time earthenware bean pot, three quarts, and hunt up somebody somewhere who has a Hightop Sweetapple tree. Get about a peck. Pare, core, and quarter the apples to fill the pot so the cover just fits snug. Add dark molasses, cinnamon, ginger, and enough water to start.

Add water discreetly as it evaporates during the afternoon baking. Serve at supper with victuals and with-its. Nobody present is going to give a thought to getting kicked out of Paradise. I have no idea where you'd go to find some Hightop Sweets, but a generation ago any Maine lawn had a tree. Try Washington State!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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