With my work at Norman’s Farm Market this growing season, I’ve become acquainted with many of the varieties that fruits and vegetables can come in – many of which as you well know, don’t show up at your grocery store.
Apples are an interesting local foods story: there were once over 14,000 varieties grown in the United States. When European settlers came to this country, their first act was to clear the land, build a cabin and plant their garden and an apple orchard. In fact, many colonial laws, including those for Virginia, required that for every five hundred acres granted to them, settlers were “to enclose and fence a quarter of acre of land near his home for a food source for baking and cooking and gardens and an orchard.”
How apple trees reproduce plays a role here: seeds from any apple have a wide range of genetic diversity that, when planted, usually do not produce the same variety of fruit that it came from. This was a positive and a negative for the settlers. The best way to reproduce apple trees is to take a small branch start from an existing tree, root it and plant it. Some settlers brought starts with them from Europe. However, not all did, nor did they have enough to plant an entire orchard after clearing their land. Therefore, they usually took seeds, planted them in rows and waited to see what came out. The best were kept and the worst cleared. Cross pollination took place and delicious varieties and variations were born.
Later they began grafting starts of two existing apple trees together to produce a result they desired: resistance to insects, a later fruiting to avoid frost in northern climates, earlier fruiting in milder climates, delicious taste, larger size or longer keeping. The genetic diversity of apples allowed them to craft unique varieties for their multiple needs and climate.
Apples were so ubiquitous in early America, that most towns and counties had their own known varieties. This was also fueled by the fact that apples were used for so many purposes: making hard cider, cooking, feeding animals and keeping for food in winter. Cider apples were in great demand and had specific varieties. Like wine grapes, cider apples don’t have a good eating flavor. But they made great hard cider, which kept well and was a staple of most American tables up until prohibition.
The wide variety of apples slowly diminished as popular varieties began to be sold to farmers and later, the advent of the grocery store. When the development of transportation systems and the industrialization of distribution of food, grocery store chains began to require apples that were capable of being transported longer distances and survive longer in the store. Perfection and beauty became advantageous, for display at a grocery store.
The diversity dwindled as larger chains developed more complex supply chains and fruit no longer was procured locally. The multitude of uses for apples declined, and their many unique characteristics of keeping, cider, cooking, etc. were no longer desired. Only looks and transportability were needed. Eventually, it diminished to their having “a red, a green and a yellow” variety on display at a store. This eliminated almost all varieties generally available to consumers and is still true today – which you may still see at your local store. Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious and Granny Smith became the only available varieties to consumers, who, like me, grew up eating only these and thinking that this flavor was the extent of apple taste.
In the resurgence of interest in local foods and in heirloom varieties of local produce, consumers and farmers are seeking out many of the old varieties of apples that have survived. Apple trees can live to be more than 100 years old, so many old varieties are being re-discovered on old farmsteads. There is an ‘apple seed bank’ at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s apple collection in Geneva, New York, which has inventoried these seed varieties and keeps track of their genetics. Many old apples had many different names as they were propagated, either named by farmers who thought they had a new variety, or as a marketing ploy to brand their tasty produce. Others were saved by apple growers in other countries, just as the Ralls Jenet, which was once popular here, but was nearly lost until Japanese apple farmers crossed it with a Red Delicious to make the wonderful, blush pink Fuji apple.
Now back to Norman’s Farm Market and their variety of apples. You can now find many different types of apples on display at Norman’s and many other farmers markets this time of year. We are fortunate in our region that Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania are good apple growing country, and we get to taste an apple just-picked from a tree, when it is at its best. My current favorites are Braeburn, Northern Spy and Fuji. Pick your own outings to local orchards have become popular with families at this time of the year, and if you have never done it, is a wonderful experience of seeing where your food comes from and supports local farms.
Customers always ask me about which is the crispest apple. So far my experience has been that the freshest, most newly picked apple is the crispest. Some varieties stay crisp longer in storage, others turn mushy and soft quickly. If you buy an apple in a farmers market from January to June, its probably been in cold storage since it was picked the previous fall. Most varieties in the U.S. start producing in mid to late summer. Grocery stores import apples from other producing regions and other countries when ours are not fresh. As with early settlers, knowing which variety serves which purpose you want is key to apple happiness.
“Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes. If he wants twenty or forty kinds of apples for his personal use, running from Early Harvest to Roxbury Russet, he should be accorded the privilege. Some place should be provided where he may obtain trees or scions. There is merit in variety itself. It provides more points of contact with life, and leads away from uniformity and monotony”
— Liberty Hyde Bailey from The Apple Tree (1922)
An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Nutrition Facts About Apples – from the Virginia Apples. org website
The homespun wisdom about apples is proving itself true in the lab. Not only are apples low in calories and high in fiber, but nutritionists and scientists are finding that apples can prevent health problems or at least reduce health risks our bodies face everyday. It’s their preventative and curative properties that are capturing the spotlight in numerous studies around the world. Some of the studies have found:
- Antioxidant phytonutrients in and apple juice help reduce cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins or bad cholesterol), helping prevent cardiovascular disease.
- Antioxidant phytonutrients also help reduce the risk of heart disease á Phytonutrients in apples slow the growth of colon cancer and liver cancer in cells
- Phytonutrients in apples lower the risk of thrombotic stroke.
- Flavonoids, especially the flavonoid, quercetin, found in apples, appear to reduce the risk of lung cancer. Some studies suggest they cut the risk of lung cancer in half.
- Apples appear to improve lung function , in general, because they contain antioxidants.
- Apples help strengthen bones.
- People with diets high in flavonoids, such as those found in apples, are 20% less likely to develop cancer.
- Apples are high in fiber. About 80% of the fiber in apples is soluble fiber which reduces cholesterol. The remaining 20% is insoluble fiber which may help prevent cancers.
- Potassium, which is found in apples, is important in regulating blood pressure.
One Great Little Food
Mother Nature was at her creative best when she came up with apples. They’ve got it all: taste, looks, and nutritional aspects that just won’t quit.
- Apples have no fat, cholesterol or sodium. Compare those stats to a bag of potato chips!
- An average apple contains only 80 calories. Compare that bottom line count to a piece of cake!
- Apples have five grams of fiber, 20% of the daily recommended fiber needs. That’s more than most cereals!
- Apples contain vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and Niacin; plus nutrients, Phosphorous Magnesium, Iron and Potassium. Apples are their own health food store!
- Applesauce is a fat free substitute when cooking and can be used in place of oil or shortening. In addition to being health, applesauce makes baked goods taste moist.
- When eaten as a snack, apples suppress hunger longer than junk foods and empty calories they contain. Apples are a great choice when dieting and trying to stave off hunger.