The Apple of My Goodbye

My nephew Zachary carrying on the annual apple picking tradition. (Photo taken by my sister Megan.)

I love apples. I grew up in New England where going apple picking was a family ritual each fall. I was wandering among the rolling orchards picking McIntosh apples from trees planted in neat rows long before the words “Macintosh” and “apple” became synonymous with computers. Of course the apples were not always McIntosh – Cortlands, Baldwins and Macouns were also abundant – but McIntosh were the most common, and I loved the tart flavor, smaller size, and its shiny red and green) skin.  I also loved the sweet smell of the orchard, of the bushels of apples sitting in their wooden crates, a sugary smell mixed with the slightly putrid smell of last year’s rotten apples that the wood had become infused with. My favorite apples were crisp and more on the tart side, as opposed to sweet. And I think Red Delicious apples are inferior in every way. Neither crisp, sweet, nor tart, they are only good for what the UMass Extension Pomology department uses them for: experiments. They’re the guinea pigs of the apple world; the skin is thick and bitter and the yellowish insides are mealy. Why subject your taste buds to such things?! There is far superior fruit out there; but finding the best fruit might require you look beyond the colorful displays of your chain supermarket and to the roadside stands and farms around your town. But that doesn’t apply to me, living in El Salvador. Apples can only be found on the supermarket shelves and nowhere else. People here know bananas the way a good New Englander knows apples. I’m sure each would be equally surprised to discover the true diversity of the fruit they find only on their grocery store shelves.

Rome Beauty apples in NH (Photo taken by Megan.)

Apples (Malus domestica, from the Rose family) have their roots (pun intended) in Turkey, but cultivars have been developed around the world. The aforementioned McIntosh hails from Ontario, for example. The Cortland and Macoun were developed at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Baldwin has been around for more than 250 years and is from Massachusetts. The Red Delicious – obviously named such in a blatant attempt to compensate for the reality of its shortcomings – was developed in Iowa in the 1870s. I won’t continue to list the apples varieties because there are actually around 7,500 different apple cultivars worldwide, all developed for a particular flavor or characteristic. The apples that grace the shelves of my nearby supermarkets include the Red (un)Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji. While we have the general sweet-tart spectrum covered, these apples all have the same thing in common: durability. This characteristic was not always intentional; the Granny Smith, for example, was developed from a chance seedling between a wild apple and a domestic apple tree in Australia in 1868. (Yes, the propagation was the work of the elderly Mrs. Smith herself – what a legend to leave the world with!)

McIntosh apples (Photo taken my Megan.)

This cultivar just so happened to stand up well in shipping. McIntosh, on the other hand, probably would only arrive unscathed at their destination if they were packaged individually in the same manner as their computer namesake. They bruise easily and if you try to store them, the flesh becomes mealy. Virtually all commercial apples today are propagated by grafting; apples are extreme heterozygotes, which means the offspring cannot be predicted very well and will be quite different from the parent tree. Of course if a breeder desires a certain characteristic, this trait is most unwelcome, so branches from the desired tree are grafted on to a certain rootstock. Rootstocks are the base of the tree and, as the name implies, the roots. Rootstocks are often different from the tree grafted on top because certain trees have desirable characteristics, such as being a dwarf tree or growing well in a particular type of soil, that the tree of the desired fruit does not have. Developing new varieties does require a new seedling, which is often a cross of two existing varieties that have certain desired traits – disease resistance, durability of shipping, etc.

The apples available in my nearby Super Selectos and Dispensa de Don Juan have been cold-stored for up to a year, or more. Cold-storing apples requires keeping them in a room, or some large container, being pumped with carbon dioxide and kept at a low temperature. Apples, like many fruit, give off ethylene gas, which trigger the ripening process. The carbon dioxide prevents the ethylene concentrations from rising to levels that would normally cause the apples to ripen, thereby allowing the apples to be kept for long periods of time before being placed on the supermarket shelves. The ones there right now are definitely from last year’s harvest (and most of them are from Washington state). Apples are wonderful for you: nutritionally, they have all sorts of small amounts of vitamins and minerals, and they are thought to have positive effects against dementia, lung, colon and prostate cancer, and they reduce your cholesterol. They are delicious eaten in a varieties of ways; although raw is by far the most common and popular, I cannot resist an apple crisp made from a mix of apple varieties (squeeze a lemon over the apples and cover with a mixture of butter, brown sugar, oats, a bit of flour, cinnamon and nutmeg, bake at 375 for 30 minutes).

However, I have given up eating apples.

Yes, that’s correct, no more apples for me. Well, that’s only partially true. I’m only giving up apples while I am in El Salvador. Unfortunately, that’s most of the time. But it had to be done. Like eating bananas in New Hampshire, eating apples here in El Salvador is the antithesis of the locavore way. The apples available here are sub-par, a dismal stand-in for the fresh-from-the-branch apples of my New England days. Breeders are working furiously to propagate cultivars that don’t need the required cold weather apple trees currently need to complete their life cycles. No apples grow in El Salvador. I hear rumors of apple orchards in Honduras, but I could not find any more concrete information than that simple fact (from the FAO). Regardless, if there are Honduran apples, they are not making it to the shelves here. It’s only Washington apples, and that journey is just too far for me to swallow. Besides, I live in a tropical climate. I CAN eat bananas and feel good about it (I’m currently eating ones that traveled a whole 25 feet from the garden out back to my kitchen!), I can eat pineapples, mangoes, avocados, passion fruit, guava, oranges, limes, and even anonas…which are known in other places as custard apples. So there you have it, my new kind of apple.

“Why not upset the apple cart? If you don’t the apples will rot anyway.” — Frank A. Clark

Zachary with his apple harvest. (Photo taken by Megan.)
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