I wish it could be October all year. Food’s not the only reason, but it’s a big one. So I was kind of dreading the seasonal food writeup because oh my God where do you even start? Fall foods are some of my favorites and it is high season for pears, persimmons, pomegranates, pumpkins, almonds, walnuts, chanterelles, pink pepper, quinces and medlars, grapes, baby kale and spinach – it’s almost as if the planet is saying “Here. Eat up, because the next few months get complicated. Sparse-style complicated.”
Farmer’s markets are dizzying in October. Trees withdraw their chloroplasts and go dormant with a big showy diva phyto-pyrotechnics display (there’s a liquidambar in my neighborhood that turns red, gold, orange, purple and bright yellow all at once). Tomatoes are still producing, and will until there’s a frost, but watery summery stuff is slowing down, keeling over, and making way for energy-dense produce, plants that seem intended to see people through the lean season. All of which is fascinating and poetic and stuff.
But all I really want to talk about is apples.
The apple is one of the most broadly cultivated fruits on Earth (probably second only to the grape) and there are thousands of known varieties and an untold number of unknown ones. Yet if you are under the age of about 60 and are not a devoted farmers’ market shopper or someone who grew up on a farm, it’s very likely that you’ve never truly tasted one. At the height of apple diversity in this country we had about 2,500 cultivars—and that number represents less than a tenth of the apple’s genome.
Let me say that again. Apples have twice as many genes as you do, and yet every apple you’ve ever bought in a supermarket, despite an appearance of diversity, came from some combination of six—that’s six—parent varietals.
Supermarket apples are a lie. They have been bred into two-dimensional cartoons, harvest, shipping and storage compliant, shiny, with unchallenging, syrupy-sweet flavors. Large-scale commercial growers have domesticated the apple into submission: the mealymouthed Red Delicious, the one-note-wonder Granny Smith, the sugary kids’-menu Fuji. In reality, apples aren’t all that domestically inclined. They’re heterozygous adulterers who have a very strong interest in diversity and unless they are strictly controlled, they will run wild. Like humans, they possess an incredible range of potential characteristics waiting to be expressed. They can be round, oblate, cylindrical, heart-shaped; they can be freckled, spotted, stippled, striped; rusted, shiny, bloomed; They can be almost any color and as small as a ping-pong ball or as big as a small melon. They can have flesh that’s watery, dry, melting, crunchy, dense; they can be acidic, sweet, tart, sharp, bitter, with sub-flavors that evoke bread, wine, nuts, bananas, herbs, flowers.
They’re complicated. Possibly more complicated than we are. They don’t go in for constancy, but what they offer in exchange, if we are willing to seek it out, is mystery, seductiveness, complexity, surprise.
October’s message is “pay attention: things are about to change.” Do yourself the favor of ingesting some of that spirit of change. Find a farm, a market stall, an orchard, or a friend with a backyard tree. Even commercially cultivated varieties are a totally different story when eaten straight off the branch. But beyond that, there are still people growing, on a small scale you will not encounter at Safeway, winter Pearmains (in cultivation since the 12th century), Ashmead’s Kernels (one of the most intensely flavored things I have ever tasted), delectable Calville Blancs, crunchy, dense, spicy Northern Spies, or any of many hundreds of varieties that have been saved from extinction by fetishists like yours truly.
The truth is, things are always changing; October just makes a really unsubtle point about it for people who need to be jolted awake. Anything can happen, and that’s what apples are trying to tell you, except the noise in the produce aisle makes it hard to hear. Find an off-the-grid apple tree or a farmers’ market orchardist with a monomania. There’s a reason why it wasn’t hard for that snake to get that girl to take a bite. Or that witch who had it in for Snow White. Hell, even Greek goddesses have been known to fight over an apple. Get out of your supermarket and into the wild and you’ll know why.
An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.
Photo by Karen Jackson CC BY-ND