Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Midwestern Visitor to the Big Apple

Enough with the New York apple-centrism! Time to give the Midwest some love.

Recently I noticed Samascott Orchards  selling a new apple at the Union Square Greenmarket. The apple was a rosy red beauty with a focus-grouped name, EverCrisp. A handwritten sign claimed a parentage of Fuji and Honeycrisp. Was this new apple destined for greatness? Despite my dubious record of produce prognistication, I had to investigate.

The EverCrisp is a strikingly attractive apple, but apples can't get by on looks alone. (The Red Delicious apple, for example, the prototypical childhood illustration of an apple, isn't spared ridicule because of its looks; one apple preservationist denounced "this disgusting, red, beautiful fruit" in an article celebrating the end of its "evil reign.") The name "EverCrisp" suggested a commitment to marketing that some apples haven't earned yet. Samascott, for example, sells plenty of apples with names like NY 428, NY 460, NY 543 and NY 652, but it's hard to cross over into the big time with a New York State Agricultural Experiment Station robo-name.

The "Crisp" in EverCrisp's name not only piggybacks off of Honeycrisp apple - an extremely popular and profitable apple variety - but also emphasizes the attribute that makes the Honeycrisp so popular: its texture. Crispness is king! The goal is to have cells that shatter, noisily and juicily. As a New Yorker article called Building a Better Apple noted,
Although a crisp texture is the single most prized quality in an apple - even more desirable than taste, according to one study - crispness is more a matter of acoustics than of mouthfeel. Vibrations pass along the lower jaw and set the cochlea trembling. Biting into a really crisp apple, one feels, in the words of Edward Bunyard, the author of "The Anatomy of Dessert," "a certain joy in crashing through living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days."

Some additional research helped me understand the appeal of the "Ever" portion of the name. As one Midwestern seller touts, "Sweet and ultra-firm EverCrisp can sit on your counter for weeks without losing crispness!"

Hardiness is the foundation of EverCrisp, which was developed by a fairly unlikely breeder, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, a collective of apple growers grappling with the unique climate challenges of their region, whose late frosts kill off apples. [Washington and New York, the "powerhouse apple states" have breeding programs that focus on late blooming apples that benefit from proximity to large bodies of water (the Pacific Ocean and Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes) that warm up slowly in the spring; ditto New Jersey, which similarly benefits from the Atlantic Ocean. The University of Minnesota's apple breeding program, creator of Honeycrisp and other successful apples like the Zestar! and SweeTango, was designed to address brutal winter weather. The Ohio State agricultural program that developed the Melrose apple no longer develops apples.] With no formal university program for landlocked Ohio/Indiana apple farmers, the growers dedicated themselves to breeding and promoting disease-resistant, late blooming apples that, in their own words, "naturally escape fire blight, scab, powdery mildew, cedar apple rust and late spring freezes thus reducing the use of fungicides, antibiotics, and orchard heating."

I appreciated the irony of this modest Midwesterner, bred to overcome the obstacle of not having New York's maritime apple advantage, being grown in New York. So far I've only seen EverCrisps at Samascott's stand, but if all goes well other farmers will follow, as will Whole Foods and other grocers. 

EverCrisp is a very welcome addition to Samscott's arsenal, especially this winter, when some of my other favorites (Macoun, Ashmead's Kernel, Golden Russet) seem to be having a difficult or truncated season. The EverCrisp is as crisp and juicy as billed, with a good apple flavor (for those of us, however unusually, prize flavor over texture), reminiscent of Fuji but without Fuji's occasional powdery and metallic notes. Its attendance at the Samascott stand has been very iffy, showing up sporadically. Twice I've been told the EverCrisp season was over, then been pleasantly surprised by a repeat appearance.

Nevertheless, Samascott demonstrated its commitment to the EverCrisp by investing in a new, formal sign.

Can the EverCrisp "remain crisp for many months"? I'm not planning any testing at my house. That's not the fate of produce (not even longevity champs like red cabbage) in my clutches. But I am encouraged by the sentiment.

Equally encouraging: EverCrisp's modest price. For fans of the notoriously expensive Honeycrisp, and similarly expensive (albeit less popular) SweeTango, EverCrisp offers a similarly tasty, crunchy apple but without the price bite.

That's another Midwestern approach that is always welcome in the Big Apple.