Apples: the ease of misunderstanding the past

There is a farmer’s market near where I work.  I always go, and at this time of year, the stands carry a huge variety of apples.  Some are available most of the season, while some have a short harvest season.  Apples have been grown in New England for centuries, and apple cider used to be the prefered light alcoholic drink around here.

But when I look into the various apples I try, I find that most of them do not have a particularly long history.  A favorite, the Macoun, came about as a cross between two older apples, the Mcintosh and the Jersey Red, and was only named in 1923.  Even older varieties have been subtly bred to improve disease resistance, separation of the stem, disease resistance, simultaneous ripening, etc.

When we read a novel set in a previous era where people eat apples (and if it's set in New England they certainly will) our understanding of what they are eating and how they get them is incorrect.  The past is another orchard.  "Good keepers" were more important in an era without refrigeration and nitrogen-filled warehouses, even if they didn't taste particularly good.  And the trees they got the apples from weren't those comfortable dwarves you see it a pick-your-own orchard.  They were...well, they were trees.  You could fall out of them and kill yourself.

It's easy to forget how much work had to be done to get us from then to now.  Generation after generation, busy agronomists and farmers have competed to create apples that will appeal to apple eaters, and be cheap and efficient for apple growers to produce.  So raise a Macoun, or a Spencer, or a Northern Spy and, before you take a bite, and give thanks for their labors.