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

1 comment:

  1. Sally, what a great summing up!

    I've made several pilgrimages to Union Square in search of new apple varieties to try, and have yet to come home empty handed. (I live near Boston and do not get into the Apple very often.)

    My theory is, the greater the city the greater the gravitational pull on good things to eat from the countryside.

    I was underwhelmed, however, by the farmers markets of San Francisco. I had to get out into apple country in California before I found anything but the standard supermarket varieties.

    By the way, Pinova/Sonata is marketed in North America as Pinata.