Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Sister's Garden

Over the weekend I paid a visit to my sister's garden. The fig trees look about the same. To use a euphemism, they look "dormant," though if it's any consolation, their dire situation is part of trend so widespread it prompted a New York Times article, "A Fig Tree Dies in Brooklyn, and Other Boroughs."

But my sister's other plantings look great.









Of course, even a successful gardener is entitled to a little envy. 

Despite my sister's best efforts, her sour cherry tree - planted in in homage to our grandmother's sour cherry tree in Far Rockaway, Queens - and because she really, really likes sour cherries - isn't doing so well. But unlike fig trees, cherry trees don't seem to be suffering from general blight this year. Check out this beauty, thriving on East 19th Street in Manhattan, that prompted a pang or two:

Evidently we're not alone in our admiration of this tree - its lowest branches were suspiciously free of fruit. (My grandmother's tree was popular with humans, birds and squirrels alike, though the humans were the most aggressive grazers, causing a disproportionate denuding of the lowest branches.) In case you're wondering, I'm innocent - at least of this particular crime.

What's growing in your garden?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Shroomin' in Tokyo (Guest blog post from Japan)

Location: New York City (Brooklyn and the Bronx, to be exact). Some heavy rains have resulted in a bumper crop of my favorite fungus.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo my friend Hiroko was also thinking about mushrooms - albeit more productively.

Here's her guest blog post: 

As an apartment dweller in Tokyo, words like "farming" and "harvesting" don't typically come very close to me. So when I found a pile of plastic wrapped logs labeled "Shiitake Log" at the fresh produce section of my local super market, I was really skeptical. They were sold 399 yen (around $4) a piece. Seriously? Hey, a pack of Shiitake Mushroom costs about $2.99! So why not giving it a try? Even if it fails, we have nothing to lose!

The idea of farming Shiitake was an instant hit with my 8 years old son. No pets are allowed in this building, but a pet Mushroom Log? YES! With enthusiasm, we opened the plastic wrapping, but we didn't find any instruction,  just a piece of hand-written memo that said, "Remove the wrap. Spray water. In a few days, Shiitake comes." Oh thank you very much!

My son did some research and said: "My fungus needs a high moisture level." He started to spritz water on the log, twice a day, as if it was an honorable job. And really, in two days.....voila! MUSHROOMS!

Whoa! Almost too much!

Tokyo is currently in its rainy season, which is called "Tsuyu" ("Plum Rain," the annual rainy season when plums are ripening), so along with my son's diligent spritzing, the Shiitake Log is getting plenty of moisture on our balcony. Did you know 90% of a Shiitake is water? 

The Shitakes are thriving, happily popping up. Harvesting has become my son's daily routine!

Harvesting mushrooms for dinner.

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles

Miso Soup with Shiitake and Scallions, Bean Thread (Saifun) Salad with Shiitake, Eggs and Fish Cake, Chicken Drumsticks and Eggs, Pickles.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Grow Your Own

The determination some folks have to grow a lawn, despite challenging conditions - arid land, tiny plots - is so strong that it requires psychological insight. One compelling theory suggest that human beings possess a deep impulse to recreate the African savanna, the cradle of human existence, by cultivating a lawn.

Are my sister and I similarly driven by powerful forces in our pursuit of the Rockaways gardens or our youth?

Growing up, we lived in a house with a backyard. Our home was 9 blocks from the ocean, barely within the New York City limits. Our backyard had toads, roses, honeysuckle and best of all, a fig tree, courtesy of our next-door neighbors who had planted a tree right up against the lot line. Every summer would bring a bumper crop, with zero effort on our part. Our generous neighbors were happy to share the bounty - a very good thing, considering that most jurisdictions accept the legal theory that whoever's lot houses the tree trunk owns all the fruit as well. Thank you, Stern family!

Of course, I fantasized about having a similar agricultural experience on my Manhattan balcony. Last year I bought a small fig tree at the Union Square Greenmarket. It developed lush foliage but no fruit. I wrapped it like a mummy to withstand the winter's frost, and have been tending it it carefully since springtime. Here's how it's going so far: 

Sigh. The weed in the corner is obviously doing a lot better than the fig tree is. 

I'd blame the container the fig tree is in, but my sister's two fig plants - one from the Union Square Greenmarket and the other from a botanical center - aren't doing much better, and hers are in the ground in her garden.

A gardening guru told her not to worry; dead-looking fig trees were capable of rebounding in early summer and even bearing abundant fruit by summer's end.

In a an ode to Brooklyn's fig trees, the food writer Melissa Clark attested to this phenomenon, writing,

[I was told that] fig trees are forgiving; if they die in winter, they can come back from the roots and bear fruit. I can vouch for this. That first winter, I wrapped my fig tree in old blankets, giving it a bucket for a hat. In spring, I unwrapped the tree. Everything else in the garden flourished. The mint and lemon balm grew tall and fragrant. The roses budded. But the poor fig tree remained adamantly brown, and I was scared I had killed it. Finally, in June, I gave up hope and lopped off the branches to stake my tomatoes. Then in July, I noticed my tomato stakes were pushing out leaves, and the stump in the barrel had started to grow. Suddenly, instead of one fig tree, I had six. I kept the hardiest of the lot and gave the others away. Now, my tree is laden with darkening fruit, branches bending under the weight. Every year the yield increases. First I got 2 figs, then 5, then 20. Now it's too many to count.

So we keep watering and keep harboring hope. 

Meanwhile, the farmers in Union Square have gone into floral overdrive, taunting me a bit with their lush greenery.

One plant in particular continues to catch my eye.

So far I'm holding strong and just tending to the fig tree I have rather than buying a new one. Really, I have no reason to think a replacement plant would necessarily fare any better. 

Besides, if I want a hardy plant, I know what to grow - a plant chock full of Vitamin C and calcium and more beta-carotene than carrots

And on a 16th story balcony, feral cat pee shouldn't be much of an issue.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

When Bad Produce Happens to Good People - Watermelon

This is not a tale of the cunning redeployment of substandard produce - tasteless blueberrieswithered grapes or never-gonna-ripen pears.

Rather, this is the Curious Case of the Exploding Watermelon.

It's also a contender for My Most Disgusting Produce Story, poised to dethrone the current champion, the tale which begins with my college roommate Kumi preparing some crudites in a lidded box for her Japanese class's midyear party. In June, I discovered the box when I was clearing out our dorm room. I guessed that the orange liquified bits had begun their lives as carrots, the pale green ones, celery. As for the darker green ones - sugar snap peas? String beans? I was too too busy gagging to make it interesting with a wagering pool. (Kumi, safely back in California by then, naturally found the story hilarious. She still does.)

This new story begins with a nice watermelon that looked like this:

When I set it aside for 2 days, my worst fear was that it was under-ripe and wouldn't taste very good.

Clearly, my fears lacked imagination and ambition. When I went to cut it up last night, the watermelon looked like this:

"Gee, my watermelon looks like it's taking a swim in a lake that could catch on fire," I thought cheerfully. "But who would put viscous water in the bowl?"

The next thought was dawning horror.

I grabbed a doubled trash bags and dumped the bowl's contents into the bags.

Normally I a pretty committed composter, but at times like this I am grateful for my dishwasher and my building's trash chute (one of the delights of apartment living). 

If you have a delicate stomach, you might want to skip to the end of this blog post. The watermelon had become truly revolting. Its rind collapsed and the watermelon's insides came pouring out.

The liquid was everywhere, damaging the wood of the furniture the mat was on, wetting (but mercifully not causing lasting harm) a fancy lamp, and in generally making a colossal mess. 

"Wow, that looks like the scene of a crime!" a friend said when I showed him the pictures.

What happened here?

According to a blog post called "Why Do Watermelons Crack, Split and Explode?",

As soon as a fresh plant is removed from its host plant or reaches maturity, it begins to very slowly break down. Heat accelerates this process. 
As it breaks down, a colorless gas called acetylene forms inside the water melon. The gas is volatile and quite unstable while in gas form (which is why when it's used in scientific experiments it's usually used in liquid form.)
The gas will try its best to escape the water melon but as it slowly increases due to the rotting in the water melon, the pressure will continue to increase.
When the skin of the watermelon is no longer strong enough to hold the gas inside, it will explode, often spraying all nearby surfaces with rotten water melon. Sometimes a trip home from the shop in a warm car is the final catalyst required to create an explosion.

Despite the disgusting scene at my house, I feel we got off easy. Just Google a phrase like "exploding rotten watermelon" and you'll see videos with watermelon bits on the ceiling and comments about the worst smell in the world. My watermelon didn't stink and I didn't have to destroy the carpet and the floorboards underneath.

Because of this, I could be more tolerant. Don't we all explode at times? 

So even if this isn't a redemptive tale, at least it has a happy ending: watermelon and I are still friends. Now excuse me while I bite into this instant refreshment.

Friday, May 23, 2014

This Honeymoon Ain't Over

Last week I bought what I thought was cantaloupe. It certainly looked like a cantaloupe, with the characteristic netted pattern on its skin. The fruit stand's sign called it a cantaloupe. The fruit stand vendor called it a cantaloupe. 

But when I cut the cantaloupe open, I discovered a surprise: green flesh!

Cantaloupe? Cantaloupe with honeydew characteristics? I happened to have  a honeydew on hand, so I figured I'd compare the two melons.

Round one: Unopened, the two melons didn't have much in common beyond their shared shape. The honeydew was significantly larger and had smooth, pale green skin. The new melon looked like a cantaloupe, with the netted skin and peachy undertones. 

Round two: interior appearance. The slice of the new melon was pale green. The honeydew was a slightly darker pale green, and its rind was thicker.

Round three, the most important round as far as I was concerned: taste. In the interest of science, I decided to hold a blind taste test, using diced melon, closed eyes and a plate that I spun around a few times so I couldn't memorize locations. I jazzed it up with a wild card, some "traditional" cantaloupe I had bought previously. 

Results:  The honeydew was sweet and mellow. The new melon was also sweet, a little milder in flavor, and extremely juicy. The cantaloupe was mediocre. I pronounced a tie between the honeydew and the new melon. I banished the cantaloupe to a fruit salad, where it could rest on other fruits' laurels.

I love both cantaloupe and honeydew. To me, honeydews are more consistently good - I have found most honeydew melons that I've bought are at least pretty good - but I enjoy an outstanding cantaloupe more than I do an outstanding honeydew. Let's hedge some bets by eating them both!

But what kind of melon exactly was this green flesh cantaloupe?

Over the years, I've had orange flesh honeydews, which I have not liked as much as regular honeydews. They looked like regular honeydews from the outside, except sometimes they had an orange-y glow to their skins. Inside, they looked like cantaloupes, albeit with thicker rinds. The mix of characteristics of both melons makes sense, since orange flesh honeydews are in fact a hybrid of honeydew and cantaloupe melons.

I also recalled seeing melons labeled  "Honeylopes" at Washington DC's Dupont Circle farmers' market. These were more more or less the reverse of orange flesh honeydews - they wore their cantaloupe ancestry on the outside.

Was my new melon a honeyloupe? 

Another possibility: It could be a galia melon, a small, sweet, cantalope-from-the-outside, honeydew-inside melon that is not as widely available as I'd like it to be. Fairway, a New York market, describes the galia as a cantaloupe-honeydew hybrid; Wikipedia's description is a more circumspect:  a "hybrid melon originating from a cross between the green flesh melon cultivar 'Ha-Ogen' and the netted rind melon culitvar 'Krimka'." (Do the Fairway guys lose credibility points when they mispronounce "galia"? It's GAHL-ya, rhyming with dahlia, not gah-lee-yuh." To avoid these pronunciation pitfalls, you could always opt to call the galia melon a passport melon, or a sarda melon, two seldom-heard names for the same melon.) 

I noticed that my melon had a trademark sticker that read "Honeymoon." "Honey" as in honeydew? "Honeymoon" as the occasion of a romantic engagement between a honeydew and a cantaloupe? Perhaps no meaning at all, just an easy-to-remember name chosen after 10 better names were already trademarked?

I did some research on-line.

According to this press release, Honeymoon melons are "a new cantaloupe" introduced in 2014 by Fresh Quest, a Florida-based produce company. Some further research  - one bit of produce is never enough - on Fresh Quest's website, however, revealed the use of the magic word, "galia," or the puzzling variation, "galia-type." 

So yes, the Honeymoon is a galia. One mystery solved.

Another mystery, however, emerged. What does it mean to be a trademarked melon? 

According to its press release, Fresh Quest was planning to introduce other trademarked melons, and I noticed some cantaloupes with stickers bearing another trademark, "MAG." MAG turns out to be a trademark of the agribusiness giant Del Monte, which has "strict guidelines for growing, harvesting, packing and transporting MAG ensure a high quality product. Melons must also meet a set of standards in terms of appearance, texture and taste in order to be marketed under the MAG melon name."

My recent foray into the world of apple breeding opened my eyes to the complicated world of produce cultivation and marketing. Interestingly enough, it turns out that like apples, melons began their journey as somewhat unpreposessing wild fruit, and modern breeding programs have  focused on making them ever-sweeter and hardier. As the website Fresh Food Central notes, 

It is almost certain that the melons grown then were not the ones we know now; the sweet, aromatic melons we eat were not around back then, and were probably more similar to the cucumber (and were indeed classified alongside cucumbers), and were really not that appetising, and in fact, unripe melons back then were noted to cause vomiting and nausea. 

On behalf of all melon enthusiasts, I'd like to say, Thank you, melon cultivators, for all your hard work since then!

My research also turned up information about a less formal breeding program that resulted in a cantaloupe - honeydew cross.  The program at Rachel's Tiny Farm : inadvertently planting the honeydew and cantaloupe really close together. Result: a honeydew with a surprise - orange flesh - and a taste "like a vanilla sugar cookie." 

Be on the lookout for OrangeVanillaSugarCookie (TM) honeydews (with large stickers, to fit that cumbersome name), coming soon to a market near you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Slime Factor

Is okra the new "it" vegetable?

For the first time, okra is making frequent appearances on New York's produce carts - following the star-making trail of fuyu persimmon, lychees and other mainstream crossover successes.

I know I have limited ability to divinate The Next Big Produce Thing, okra's popularity is surprising for an excellent reason: okra doesn't get a lot of love.

Some responses I've heard over the years: "Eww!" "Are you really gonna eat that?" and "Okra? Aren't they like slugs for vegetarians?"

My friend Maryann is an okra enthusiast, though she mainly enjoys okra in its New Orleans omnivore incarnations - gumbo (literally okra in Bantu), and jambalaya. Of course, it helps that she doesn't mind what others find objectionable about okra: the slime factor. "I like it all," she says.

I'm not as unambivalently pro-okra. I like okra pickles (hmm...I sense a potential blog entry!), which are crispy and non-slimy, but I'm put off by the slug-like texture that I associate with overcooked okra.

To learn more about okra's potential, I turned to Indian cuisine. I love Indian vegetarian food - could half a billion people be wrong? - but I admit that two decades of enjoying Indian food hasn't prompted me to order bhindi masala. (Okra vs. potatoes, lentils and flatbread? Nice try. Hard to find anyone to go halvsies, either.) But simply knowing that okras had a fan base for dishes beyond gumbo and deep-fried hush puppies (deep-fried anything has a fan base, so the that can't count for much) helped make the case to try some okra for myself.

But what to do about the slime factor?

There were several schools of thought: Don't cut the stem. No, don't cut the okra anywhere. An intact okra is a slime-free okra.

No, the enemy is water. Never add water to okra. Dry the okra diligently - and dry it again when you think you're done - after washing it. 

High heat! High heat will keep your okra nice and slimeless. High heat and quick cooking.

No, choose youth! Small, tender okra would naturally have fewer seeds and less developed mucilage - i.e., less slime.

I decided to cherry-pick some ideas from the varying philosophies. After perusing some recipes, I decided to cook okra with some onion and Indian spices.

Most bhindi masala recipes call for the okra to be split lengthwise. That seemed to be an invitation to slimeville. I liked the idea of quick cooking at a high heat. I also liked the idea of small, tender okra, ideally warmed by the August sun in my own ripening garden, but as a young friend likes to say, you get what you get and you don't get upset

My stance on slicing was part devil-may-care (I'd slice most of them), part scientific researcher (I'd keep a few okra whole and see if this control group was substantively different than the cut sample).

Finally, I would wash those babies and pat them Sahara Desert dry.What else are paper towels for?

Indian Spiced Okra

1 lb. okra
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin 
1 teaspoon cumin seeds (what can I say? I love cumin!)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon asafetida, optional 
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or less, to taste) or other hot pepper
Oil spray


Wash and dry the okra. Slice in half or keep whole as you wish. Or do both, for comparison.

Spray a large saute pan or cast iron skillet with oil spray or a thin film of olive oil. Saute the onion over a medium flame, adding the garlic after a few minutes, until golden (about 5 minutes). 

Add the ginger-garlic paste and then the spices, stirring vigorously to coat the onion mixture, and saute for a minute. 

Add the okra, continuing to stir. Add another bit of oil or oil spray to prevent scorching. Cover the pan, lower the heat and cook for an additional 3 - 4 minutes.

Variation: I added 2 chopped tomatoes with the okra, since bhindi masala does include tomatoes. 

This time the okra did come out a bit slimy. Was it the tomatoes? Did I simply overcook the dish? My mode of scientific inquiry has its limits: I plan to return to the tomato-free version rather than test all the permutations of the dish. Besides, I'll need those okras for my pickling experiments.

Good thing the produce carts seem so well stocked.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thank you, Morley Safer, for this plausible winter garden salad

Remember tomatoes? Sweet, luscious tomatoes, perfect additions to every kind of salad and utterly fantastic on their own? Drippy, summery tomatoes?

Nah, neither do I.

It's about 2 degrees outside. I skidded on black ice this morning. More snow is expected this weekend.

Time for some salad!

Most people don't crave the kind of tomato that bounces undented when it falls of the truck - in other words, the kind of tomato that is available this kind of year. But they still may want the refreshment of a salad. 

Needless to say, "salad" doesn't mean a fatty assemblage of pasta or potatoes featuring my least favorite food substance, mayonnaise. I mean a real salad, a gathering of garden vegetables. But what are the plausible options for a decent garden salad when the supermarket selections can be so dismal?

Here comes Morley Safer to save the day! 

To most people, Morley Safer is known as a veteran correspondent of 60 Minutes, the long-running television show. Some may remember the old joke, "What kind of name is Morley? Is it the opposite of Leslie?" Some people also know that Morley Safer was a journalist in Southeast Asia. But to me, he's mainly known for a salad. 

This recipe for "Spicy Cucumber Salad" appeared in the New York Times about 20 years ago. I recall making it right away. Nowadays we wouldn't think of this salad as being "spicy" - compare it, say, with the deceptively innocuous-looking salads you get in Ethiopian restaurants, with killer chili pepper slices hidden among the lettuce leaves - but evidently 20 years ago in gringo-land, only a crusty journalist with Southeast Asian wartime credentials would know about cilantro and red pepper flakes. It may not be spicy, but it sure is tasty.

What I love most about the recipe is that its ingredients are readily accessible in regular supermarkets throughout the year: cucumbers, carrots and cilantro. Yes, cucumbers from the farmers' market would taste better, but this recipe is quite forgiving. Since the cucumbers are halved and seeded, and then coated with a flavorful dressing, even relatively tasteless, bloated and woody cucumbers can be used. You can use a rainbow of carrots if you'd like, or just a bunch in a cello bag. This recipe will elevate the humble.

Morley Safer's Spicy Cucumber Salad

2 large cucumbers, peeled 
1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and sliced into julienne strips (about 2 cups) 
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves 

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup rice vinegar 
3 tablespoons sugar 


1/3 cup vinaigrette
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce, or more to taste
optional: dash of soy sauce

Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the seeds. Cut the cucumber into thin slices. Combine cucumbers, onion, carrots and cilantro in a bowl. Mix the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl, then pour to coat salad. Chill before serving.

Yes, you may place what we vegetarians euphemistically call "a hunk of protein" on this salad for a one dish meal. Or just serve it as a refreshing side dish. You may even crave it in the summer months - when the pickings are much better than they are in February.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Big Apple

My beloved Union Square Greenmarket may be my muse, but I have eyes for other other cities' markets as well. I recently wrote about Washington DC's markets, and perhaps I'll write about Philadelphia's, especially the historic Reading Terminal Market (although, let's be honest, it's the pretzels, not the produce, that make Reading Terminal one of my favorite destinations in Philadelphia). But none of these East Coast cities had farmers' markets with the Wow Factor of San Francisco's.

Yes, I'll admit it. San Francisco's markets were better than anything New York had to offer. Hard to argue with California soil. One item of produce, however, helped me hang on to my New York chauvinism: the apples. San Francisco's markets had neither the quality nor the range of New York's. Even as I oohed and ah'd about dozens of other fruits and vegetables, I actually felt a little homesick - for The Big Apple.

We New Yorkers certainly take our apples seriously here. But - as I found out when researching the nickname for this blog post - the term "The Big Apple" has nothing to do with apples. Instead, the name dates from the 1920's, and derives from the slang use of the word "apple" to mean racetracks and their prizes. NYC, as a big city, had a Big Apple. The term was later popularized by jazz musicians and made official by a New York City tourism campaign.

Of course, the tourism wouldn't have been very effective if the apples weren't so good!

My father-in-law, who hails from area of Vynohradiv in Eastern Europe, has spoken longingly of the range of apples he recalls from his youth. "You'd go to the market and you'd see 16, 20 types!" he recalled. This inspired me to conduct my own census of the apples I've seen over the past couple of months at the Union Square Market, from early ripening varieties like Ginger Gold to still-lookin'-good-in-winter stalwarts like Granny Smith. The count to date: 60. Yes, 60 varieties! (Take that, Heinz!)

Not only is the list long, it turns out that the apples' family trees are the stuff of soap operas or long Russian novels. The supermarket staple Golden Delicious (perhaps my least favorite apple on this list), for example, is  descended from the Grimes Golden and is a parent, along with the York Imperial, of the Nittany apple. (Not surprisingly, botanists at Penn State University, home of the Nittany Lions football team and many other Nittany-named associations, were the midwives of this variety.) This one offspring was plainly not enough: Golden Delicious is also a parent of Jonagold, Cameo, Pinova, Arlet, Mutsu, Pink Lady and Elstar (just to name varieties that were available at the Greenmarket).

Other varieties have intriguing histories. 

Newtown Pippins grew along Newtown Creek, an estuary between Queens and Brooklyn, in the early 1700s (well before - nearly 300 years - the area was designated a Superfund site). Later the variety was exported to Great Britain, where it gained a fan in Queen Victoria. Nowadays Martinelli's boasts of using Newtown Pippin apples in its juice. 

Wikipedia's entry for Newtown Pippin identify it as a parent of Ginger Gold, a late summer apple (that might be the official apple of Brighton Beach); but the Wikipedia entry for Ginger Gold, meanwhile, identifies its parents as "Golden Delicious, Albemarle Pippin and some other unknown variety," with no mention of good ol' Newtown. Oooh, intrigue!

The range of apples sold at the Greenmarket includes both traditional "heirloom" varieties - basically, varieties like McIntosh that were discovered a long time ago as seedlings, then cultivated - and hybrids that are the result of formal apple breeding programs, such as the one run by New York's Agricultural Experiment Station (AES), an affiliate of Cornell University.

When you go to the market and see a new variety like the AES's Ruby Frost, it's easy to assume that breeding programs are a recent invention, but the AES was established in the 19th century! One of its apples, Cortland, was was introduced 100 years ago. My beloved Macoun, a cross of McIntosh and Jersey Black (an otherwise little-known variety), is another AES product, as is Empire, a McIntosh/Red Delicious hybrid.

Nowadays one of the big breeding success stories is Honeycrisp. produced at the University of Minnesota. I had already known that Honeycrisps are usually the most expensive apples in the market, and that they have their own dedicated website; in the course of writing this blog entry, I also learned the very relevant fact that the University of Minnesota patented the Honeycrisp and reaped $10 million in royalties from the apple.   Honeycrisp's parents are Macoun and Honeygold, itself a hybrid of Golden Delicious and Haralson, a notably hardy variety named after the former head of the University of Minnesota apple breeding program.

What's the point of all this tinkering?

We're a country that loves new 'n' improved, so perhaps it's a self-explanatory phenomenon. 

From this fascinating - at least to a fruit nut like me -presentation about apple breeding, I learned that breeders especially fiddle with sweetness, hardiness, crunch, vitamin content, disease and insect resistance, and marketability. A crisper, hardier version of a Macoun would be a commercial success - especially if it could be shipped all over the place.  As the reviewers on this apple info site note, folks who live outside of Macoun territory bemoan their loss! But for me, Honeycrisp isn't an improvement over Macoun. It certainly tastes sweeter - the great restaurant critic Robert Sietsema claims that Honeycrisps have been bred to "have a sugar level way higher than other apples" - in keeping with the modern tendency to manipulate fruits to make them sweeter. A British zoo, for example, recently banned feeding monkeys bananas bred for human consumption, likening them to cake - a far cry from bananas found in the wild. 

But to be fair, the manipulation of the sweetness levels of apples has always been an integral part of the crop's history. Apples, a portrait of the fruit by Frank Browning, describes apples' transformation from super-sour "spitters" (fruit so sour you'd spit them out), to the contemporary sweet stuff. The apples we enjoy in New York and throughout the US have their origins in Eurasia and made their way to the US via the notoriously underskilled European settler-farmers. Or, in other words, "The earliest [European] settlers came ill-equipped in almost all aspects of agriculture, save for apples."

These apples were used for cider and medicinal purposes, but increasingly for food as well, which meant cultivating an ever-sweetened apple. As Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire.

The quest to sweeten the typically bitter fruit ignited a grower's frenzy in the 19th century, bringing fame to hundreds of quintessentially American personalities such as the Red Delicious, the Baldwin and the Jonathan. Each iteration of the apple reflected the young country's understanding of itself as a diverse nation of transplants, a new breed of individuals digging new roots into their adoptive soil.

What about heirlooms? Here's how Robert Sietsema described one heirloom variety, Golden Russets, in this ode
While modern botanists seek to make apples sweeter, shapelier, and more beautifully colored, heirlooms stand in sharp contrast. They're often gnarled and brown, and have hard textures, with flavors that run more to nuts and hard liquor than table sugar and mass-produced perfumes. 
The Golden Russet is a good example. Bite into it and pecans and maple syrup fill your mouth, and even, if you concentrate really hard, maybe the soil that the apple grew in on a sunny hillside near Rome, New York, or somewhere in the Hudson Valley. "Russet" refers to the brown splotches on the apple, producing a certain leatheriness to the skin. The flesh is hard; and hence it takes some chewing to eat, and resounds with a sharp "crack" when you bite into it. The flavor is delicate, too, the opposite of the newfangled Honeycrisp, which is a current farmers' market favorite that displays the modern objectives of hybridization.

Dunno if I'd go that far. I happen to love Golden Russets. Of all the heirlooms I've sampled, they are no doubt the most exotic, the apples that have the least in common with the big, juicy sudsy Washington apples that dominate supermarket shelves. (Washington State is the US's big producer. New York is a distant second. Sour grapes (apples?) on my part? No, my bad experiences with Washington apples is no doubt based upon the combination of varieties I'm not crazy about in the first place (Golden and Red Delicious) and their selection for cross-continental shipping. Maybe I need to taste some apples at Seattle's Pike Place Market to end my grumbling.) 

Golden Russets are noticeably light for their size. Normally I choose fruit that are heavy for their size, but that's not really an option for this apple. They're drier and harder than most apples. Their skin is rough and leathery. Perhaps my powers of concentration are less than Sietsema's, but I've never tasted pecan or maple or terroir when eating a Golden Russet. I have, on the other hand, enjoyed a rich apple flavor, tarter and more complex than that of most apples.  

After all this apple research and tasting, what did I learn?

  • There is sometimes more variety within an apple type than outside it -not a great shocker when you realize how closely related some varieties are.
  • Not all heirlooms are great, and not all hybrids are bad news. Prime examples: Golden Delicious is considered an heirloom and Macouns are the results of manipulated breeding. The flip side, of course, is true as well. "Building a better apple" might result in an apple that's better for shipping or resisting blight, not for better taste.
  • If you don't like the parents (apple), there's a good chance you won't like the kid (apple) much either. Likewise, if you don't like the kid (apple), you probably won't like the parent (apple) either. For me, not liking Grimes Golden wasn't a shocker since I dislike Golden Delicious. Likewise, since I'm no fan of Golden Delicious nor of Jonathan, it was no surprised to be unimpressed by their offspring, Jonagold. Ditto for the Red Delicious/Jonathan hybrid Melrose, a product of the Ohio State horticulture program. Some vendors thoughtfully mention the parentage in their signs, which saves on having to carry around genealogy index cards. But be open to possibilities. For example, I like Fuji, whose parentage includes Red Delicious (with Ralls Genet), one of my thumbs-down varieties, and I like Cripps Pink (aka Pink Lady), although Golden Delicious is one of its parents. Maybe you need two disliked parents to really strike out.
  • Don't judge an apple by its name. Spigold, Honeygold, etc. have Golden Delicious as a parent; Ginger Gold and Golden Russet do not. Ask, read up or throw caution to the wind and simply sample.
  • Beware of any apple described as having a "subtle" or "pear-like" taste. While I like actual pears just fine, "pearlike" and "subtle" are code words for "no taste" and "lacks flavor." (See: CandyCrisp, with its sign above.) 
  • I prefer apple slices to biting into a whole apple. Best of all: quartered with the seeds and encasement removed.
  • Taste tests are fun! Apples not only have different skin colors, they have different flesh colors, too. Also, different scents and different textures. Explore, and enjoy! 60 varieties can keep you busy for a good long time.

Were there really 60 varieties? Yes, indeed!

1.   Macoun  
2.   McIntosh 
3.   Pinova (aka Sonata)
4.   Red Delicious 
5.   Golden Delicious (aka Yellow Delicious)
6.   Gold Rush
7.   Mutsu (aka Crispin)
8.   Ida Red
9.   Cripps Pink aka Pink Lady
10.  Granny Smith 
11.  Fuji
12.  Golden Russet
13.  Calville Blanc
14.  Ruby Frost
15.  Cox's Orange Pippin
16.  Winesap 
17.  Stayman's Winesap 
18.  Arlet
19.  Cortland 
20.  Rome
21.  Jonathan
22.  Jonagold
23.  Northern Spy
24.  Redspy
25.  Ginger gold
26.  Gala
27.  Braeburn
28.  Spartan
29.  Empire 
30.  Chippers

31.  Monroe
32.  Pendu Plat
33.  Melrose 
34.  Ambrosia
35.  Honeycrisp 
36.  Nittany York
37.  Keepsake
38.  Candy Crisp
39.  Black Twig
40.  Winter Banana
41.  Eve's Delight
42. Suncrisp
42. Golden Supreme
43. Cameo
44. Spencer
45. Smokehouse
46. Grimes Golden 
47. Molly Delicious
48. York
49. Snow Sweet
50. Greening 
51. Lady
52. Akane 
53. Ashmead's Kernel 
54. Fortune 
55. Elstar 
56. Newtown Pippin
57. Baldwin
58. Spigold
59. NY 428
60. NY 460