This Apple Historian Wants You to Meditate on Your Fruit

Apple historian Tom Burford is not an angry man, but having spent his entire life among apples, he cherishes some strong opinions about this quintessentially American fruit. Like people, he says, some apples serve us better than others, and some...

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Oct 30 2014, 8:00pm

Tom Burford wants us to consider what we've done to the apple. "It's sort of irksome to me to see someone walking down the street, eating an apple so nonchalantly," he tells me in his syrupy Virginia drawl, as if he's politely spitting out an unripe chunk of fruit from his mouth. "I want to stop them and say, 'Do you know what you're missing?'"

The 79-year-old author of Apples of North America is not an angry man, but having spent his entire life among apples—both in his family's orchards and educating people around the world about our lost apple culture—Burford cherishes some strong opinions about this quintessentially American fruit.

Sure, he might occasionally disfigure a supermarket Red Delicious here or there, but you really don't want to eat them anyway. "As an apple historian," he says, "I see apple varieties as I do people. They're all quite different. Some serve us better than others, and some deserve to be in the background."

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Winesap.

Even if that smacks of apple fascism, Burford has a point. It's no secret that the Red Delicious was a key player in the undoing of America's long affair with apples. "In 1900, an accounting of was made of the inventory of the American varieties, and although there are some duplicates, they listed 17,000 named apple varieties," Burford notes. "By 1950, about a dozen had dominated, mainly because of the mega-nurseries, took control of the orchards and told the orchardists what to plant."

The Red Delicious, with its cartoonish red sheen and perfectly heart-shaped silhouette, became the apple to end all apples. It didn't matter that it was often mealy and flavorless as long as it looked good on a shelf. "These were mega-nurseries run from board rooms," Burford says, "and profit was the bottom line."

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Stayman

Now, Burford says, the Red Delicious is "the largest compost-maker in the world," going from orchard to table to trash: "The consumer goes into the supermarket and picks up that bag of Red Delicious and puts them in the cart. They take them home, put them in the fruit bowl, pick one off the top, and bite into it and say, 'This isn't really good.' It goes in the trash, and the next week the very same thing happens. Fifty-two bags of apples piled up in the trash!"

The Red Delicious wasn't always an apple bogeyman, though. From its origins as the Hawkeye, Burford says, the Red Delicious is a "decent" apple. "I had one in an apple salad a few days ago," he tells me. "I talked to the salad and I said, 'Look what happened to you.'"

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Hawkeye

Yes, this is a man who talks to his apple salad—and it talks back. For him, the history of the United States can be read through apples.

"I'm sort of 'the apple guy' by default," he says, noting that the Burford family has been growing apples in America since 1715. "Sometimes I think I have cider flowing in my veins." Since closing up his own Virginia nursery in 1997, Burford has dedicated himself to what he calls "a full-blast education program to recapture our lost apple culture."

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Baldwin

A short history of the apple in America might go something like this: Settlers arrived in the New World, bringing with them hopes for prosperous future and bags of apple seeds. As they were planted, every seed and every apple became a new variety. "The New World became the greatest laboratory for the production of new varieties that the world has ever seen," says Burford. But apples weren't just for eating (though they did sustain many a family through harsh winters). They were primarily grown for making cider, which was far safer to drink than water. Along the way, some of these early seedling orchards would manifest apples with a beautiful flavor.

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Roxbury Russet

But as agriculture became more industrialized over the last century and a half, things began to change. Burford believes that one of the key skills lost in this transition was grafting, which is the only way of duplicating a given apple variety. "Every orchard of like varieties is grafted, whether it's two trees in the back yard or 100,000 trees in one of the huge orchards," he says. "That knowledge was generationally interrupted, and that's when the mega-nurseries stepped in. They provided trees for the nurseries and did a tremendous marketing plan. They were telling not only the orchardists what to grow, but that was all that was available. So the consumer had no choice but these dozen varieties."

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Smokehouse

Not only were orchardists being told what to grow, but they weren't given viable options for anything else. "The great obscenity of the mega-nuseries was to sell apple variety trees to regions of the country where they would not perform well," says Burford. "It's very much like the Fuji apple, which has a long growing season and does not mature up in northern New England or Canada. But it's available in the catalogs—they try to sell it to them without a warning."

In the last couple decades, however, that trend has reversed. First, consumers began to reject the highly overplanted Red Delicious—which resulted in President Clinton's famous bailout of the apple industry—and a few other varieties grabbed the throne. "The Gala, the Braeburn, and the Fuji appeared within a fairly quick timespan," says Burford. "The consumer started buying them instead of Red Delicious. Something happened between the communications of the consumer and the supermarket. The consumer went into the market and told the produce manager, 'I like these three. What else do you have?'"

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Esopus Spitzenburg

From there, older and more obscure apples began to reappear. In response to demand, commercial orchards are now planting varieties like Roxbury Russet, Northern Spy and Smokehouse. The only downside is that demand for them now far outweighs supply. Burford mentions cideries that buy cider-making varieties from small orchards rather than more readily available ones. "They are buying them on futures, you might say. They still have three years before the delivery of the crop."

At the same time, the demand is also helping to revitalize orchards that have been derelict for decades. "I do workshops in fruit tree renovation and there are orchards where there are 50 or 60-year-old Winesap apple trees, for instance. They are now being pruned out, they are being carefully taken care of and fertilized, and their yield is fantastic because many of these are on standard stock and they are 25 feet tall and they'll produce 50 bushels."

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Rhode Island Greening

The apple culture across the Atlantic is turning, too. "At one point, the British government subsidized the orchards to rip out their Cox's Orange Pippins and their Ribston Pippins, and to plant Jonagold, Fuji, and Braeburn," Burford says. "But that is changing, mainly because of the cider industry. Cider-making in Europe is undergoing a tremendous resurgence, and its beginning to sort of take up part of the market share of beer and wine, just as it is here."

When I ask Burford if he's partial to any particular varieties from the 192 he lists in his book, he immediately points to the return of the Newtown Pippin, which was first discovered in New York City around 300 years ago. The trees sourced for the city's current dispersal program came, naturally, from Burford's orchard in Virginia.

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Newtown Pippin.

Burford also mentions the Baldwin, which was once one of the major commercial apples in America, particularly in New England and the mid-Atlantic. "In the winter of 1933-34, the temperature dropped to 30 below zero in late February, when the sap had started moving in these great huge trees," he says. "There was some concern that we were going to lose these trees if it got colder, and indeed the next it got to 40 below!" The sap in the trees froze and burst the trees, decimating the entire crop.

"About that time, there was a new apple that had come out of Canada that was planted as the replacement for the Baldwins, and that was the McIntosh," Burford says. "So the McIntosh replaced the Baldwins, but now because of the besmirching of the McIntosh just like the Red Delicious—there are so many cultivars of McIntosh now and most of the modern ones really don't have that old Mac taste—the orchards are beginning to plant the Baldwins again."

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Macoun

Then there's the Esopus Spitzenburg, which Thomas Jefferson reportedly declared his favorite apple. ("It is indeed a good apple," Burford offers.) Jefferson continued to plant it year after year even though the trees weren't suited to the region's high humidity and kept dying. When Burford restored the orchards at Monticello 32 years ago, he put in the Esopus Spitzenburg anyway.

Besides having historical importance, each apple variety has its own purpose, too. "There are apples for dessert, for cider-making, apples for culinary use, apples for drying, apples butter-making. For culinary apples, the Rhode Island Greening and the Stayman are beginning to get very popular again," Burford says. He will sometimes "tease or threaten" chefs into replacing typical apple varieties in their desserts with more appropriate (if more obscure) ones.

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McIntosh

"I really cringe when I see recipes for pies or apple desserts that call for six Granny Smith apples," Burford complains. "Most of the Granny Smiths, especially those that are imported and those that are off-season, have been picked prematurely." Check the seeds, he says; if they're white or ivory, the apple's not ready and you'll have a starchy pie.

"To make a good apple pie or apple tart, and a good cider, you need four elements: sugar, tannin, acid, and an aromatic. Very few apples have all of those qualities. So the best apple pies are made with a combination of apples that do provide it. For instance, you could use a Winesap and a Grimes Golden and a Stayman in your pie."

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Northern Spy

Even with good apples, though, everything goes to hell if your crust is poor. "I prefer leaf lard," advises Burford. "Being an old farm boy, my father had me cut the fat off of the kidneys of the hogs. We separated that and that was used for pastry making. The fat around the kidney is usually less veined and it's pristine white. Whatever you use, if your crust isn't good, look out!"

At a one point during our conversation, Burford turns a bit wistful as he explains to me how one should properly eat an apple: "If you have a bad day and you're all stressed out, don't pop pills. Take an apple. Go to a very quiet place and slowly slice that apple. Peel it, smell it. Lick the slice. Let the juices run. Taste it. And when you've finished eating that apple, much of your stress will be gone."

It's been a long time since a 79-year-old has spoken to me in such passionate terms, but if anyone on this Earth deserves to be passionate about apples, it's Tom Burford.

All photos taken from Apples of North America© Copyright 2013 by Tom Burford. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.